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STIGMATA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Pryce
Director:  Rupert Wainwright
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  See Review
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  February 29, 2000

Film *1/2

I spent a little over three years in Catholic school growing upÖhardly enough to be considered an expert on the faith, but certainly enough for me to recognize the absurdity of Stigmata.  I wondered why Catholics around the world rallied together against Kevin Smithís Dogmaóthis is the film they should have protested.  It takes one of theologyís strangest, unexplained phenomena and makes it the basis for a cheap, poorly conceived horror film.

The stigmata are mysterious wounds that have appeared on certain faithful souls throughout the history of the Christian church, that are similar to the wounds suffered by Christómainly openings in the hands and feet.  Some of these instances, which were documented but never scientifically explained, were considered a sign of sainthood in the eyes of the church, beginning with St. Francis of Assisi and continuing on through the history of Catholicism.  We studied a few examples back in school.

Some of what this film would have you believe include the idea that the stigmata can be transferred via an object; in this case, a rosary that ends up in the hands of a young atheist, Frankie (Arquette).  We are led to believe that the wounds are actually painfully inflicted by some invisible hand, rather than just appearing mysteriously.  We are also led to believe that those who are marked with the stigmata go through a rather demonic-style possession, even in Frankieís case, who is trying to deliver a message about the truth of the gospels.

Enter into her life a priest with a scientific background (Byrne), a man not unlike Father Karras from The Exorcist.  He admits he hasnít prayed in years, and is going through a spiritual crisis of his own.  His background gets him sent to places where miracles may have occurred, and where people believe in those miracles, but his job is essentially to try and disprove their veracity.  It hurts people, and he doesnít like it much, even without considering what such an occupation has done to his own faith.  Itís not a bad role, and Byrne does very well with it.

When he meets up with Frankie, it soon becomes clear that what is going on with her canít be easily explained away.  Not only the marks, but the speaking and writing in ancient Aramaic.  It seems sheís been given a message to deliver.

Without giving too much away, the filmís idea for the message came from the gospel of St. Thomas, which is made mention of at the end.  Itís an ancient scroll discovered this century that purports to be the words of Jesus spoken in first person to his apostle Thomas, and some believe may actually be the most accurate account of his words on record.  Yet many churches, including the Catholic one, dismiss its validity.

The way this is worked into the movie is a point that Iím still a bit torn on.  Itís an intriguing notion, but like everything else in the film, it comes across as too absurd and silly to be taken seriously as a point of exposition. 

Whether or not audiences with little or no background in the Catholic faith will like this movie better is something I canít say.  I tried very hard not to judge the picture based on what I personally knew was grossly in error about it, but it was impossible.  When you know what youíre watching is far off base, you canít help but be distracted by it.  Imagine watching an American Revolution picture where the colonists and the British are fighting with machine guns, tanks, and missiles.  How could you take any part of such a film seriously?  And the film offers plenty of absurdities outside of its theological onesÖwhen someone mentions itís believed Frankie might have epilepsy, another chimes in, ďShe doesnít look like an epileptic.Ē  What, pray tell, is an epileptic supposed to look like, we wonder?

Perhaps the movieís biggest sin is simply that itís a horror movie that isnít scary.  Itís clear that neither the script nor director Wainwright have much of a clue on how to build suspense, how to create atmosphere, and how to really startle.  Most of the film suffers from loud music and noxious MTV style editing, even during the crucial marking scenes.  It instills the picture with a music video type of artificiality, that never lets you get close enough to the event or the people to feel any fear.

Iím guessing that only two horror films based on Judeo-Christian theology were really possible:  The Exorcist and  The Omen.  Everything else seems to mimic one or the other:  the Biblical doomsday prophecy, or the encounter with an other worldly force that personifies itself amongst us.  Stigmata falls into the latter category, but it falls way short by failing to scare and by lacking faith in the true spirit of the subject it tries to build upon.  

Video ***

This anamorphic offering from MGM is mostly good, but suffers from occasional poor lighting choices.  Certain low levels, which were possibly intended for effect, ended up badly done, and leaving foreground images murky, less defined and sometimes even a bit blurry.  Still, throughout there is good coloring and a lack of grain or breakup, though a few images in deep focus get a little bit of shimmer to them. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is quite good, with good use of sound effects, but not utilized quite to the effect of better horror movies.  It mostly concentrates on a few noisy sequences and the music.  However, when these scenes kick in, there is a full barrage of signals to all channels and the subwoofer, which are well balanced, dynamic, and coordinated for maximum effect.  These moments alone really make the listening experience.

Features ***

The disc contains a directorís commentary, deleted scenes, a music video, the trailer, and the alternate ending, which is not all that ďalternateĒ.

Summary:

I guess you can say that as minimal as my Catholic background is, it still afforded me too much to be able to enjoy Stigmata.  Even if I hadnít the knowledge to know just how ridiculous the ideas of the movie actually are, I donít think the picture would done much for me anyway.  Itís simply not scary.  If thatís what youíre looking for, pick up Stir of Echoes instead.