Let's get something straight right up front about "Stigmata"; as scary as this film can be at times, it is a far cry from a horror picture, and much closer to a spiritual fable. That revelation may immediately disinterest a hard-core horror fan, but don't be put off by the difference; "Stigmata" has enough thrills, chills and violence to deliver on the adrenaline rush it promises in its ad campaign, and more. What it doesn't have a great supply of, unfortunately, is unpredictability.
Beginning with a blood orange sunset over the mountains of Brazil, and the dissonant effect of hieroglyphics translating quickly into an eerie, stylish rendering of the movie's opening credits, director Rupert Wainwright uses every tool at his estimable command (including music, to great effect) to unsettle the viewer. When the look and feel of the film doesn't dominate the senses, however, a fairly straightforward plot can be seen peeking through the film's finery.
The action of the movie begins with a modern-looking man making his way through a parade of South American religious pilgrims winding their way through the village streets to the doors of a small church, wherein an arguable miracle is taking place. A solid stone statue of the Virgin Mary is apparently crying tears of actual blood.
This event sets the stage for a battle between believers and non-believers, scientists and Saints, and, ultimately, the sacred and the profane.
Talk about mixed messages, even the lead character is a hybrid. Gabriel Byrne plays Father Andrew Kiernan, a Vatican priest/scientist, who investigates potential miracles. Sent by Rome's Cardinal Daniel Houseman (played by an unctuous Jonathan Pryce), when Kiernan arrives in Bello Quinto to inspect the statue, he finds that a supernatural force is, indeed, seemingly in possession of the small Brazilian church. It is questionable whether the force is good or evil. Even the presence of the church's recently deceased priest, Father Paulo Alameida, and his dark rosary, fuse the line between benevolent and malevolent appearances.
All of this heavy portent is blown into MTV high-gear when the film switches action to a very deconstructed, jarring credit sequence introducing Patricia Arquette as the hedonistic hairdresser, gen-xer, urban-American Frankie Paige. Complete with a cigarette and a neon, lime-green, vinyl jacket, Arquette is the very (obvious) picture of a miracle waiting to happen. Of course, it is her ultimate journey into the heart of religious ambivalence which captivates the audience and Father Kiernan.
How Frankie becomes "possessed" by another consciousness (which will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the trailer or read a synopsis of the film), will not be revealed here. Rest assured, however, that the onset of her stigmatic symptoms is, to use director Rupert Wainwright's words, both "beautiful and brutal at the same time."
Because of the horrific events which are visited upon Frankie, as well as Arquette's sympathetic portrayal of her, it's a no-brainer that Father Kiernan and the audience will invest even more desperately in the hope that she will be saved. Alternating between repellant and attractive, Arquette's embodiment of this sexy lost lamb torn by a multitude of forces and agendas is the driving force of the film. Equally important to this supernatural story is the grounding presence of Byrne's soulful, compassionate man of integrity, as well as of the cloth.
Although it is highly predictable at times, the story manages to be engaging and, oddly enough, thought-provoking.
Boasting a haunting score with songs vocalized by such artists as David Bowie, Sinead O'Connor, Massive Attack and Natalie Imbruglia, the music is perfectly attuned to the film. And while the symbolism and lyrics may be heavy-handed at times, like everything else about the film, they are both obvious and powerful.
Likewise, "Stigmata" director Rupert Wainwright's highly stylistic use of music, lighting and editing packs an effective visual and visceral punch and greatly enhances the film, though it does tend to reveal his background in the concept-driven world of television commercials.
Those who like their movies realistic probably won't ultimately buy "Stigmata." For those willing to suspend their disbelief, the film is an effective cinematic roller-coaster ride, albeit with a conclusion that's predictable enough to be guessed long before the viewer gets there.