"Stigmata" doesn't need a critic; it needs an exorcist. If ever a movie were possessed it's this one, though not by Satan so much as by other ancient demons: too much ambition, too much style, not enough story and nothing nice to say.
It turns out to be a vicious anti-Catholic diatribe disguised as an audition tape for MTV. The young director Rupert Wainwright clearly hopes this gets him a Madonna vid, and that's why he pulls out all the stops. Watching it is like sticking your head inside a pipe organ while somebody plays a Bach fugue really loud.
What bombast! What Sturm und Drang! What misdirected energy! It's wholly untainted by moderation, wit, taste or dramatics. When somebody orders breakfast in a Pittsburgh greasy spoon, Wainwright goes mega-zoom on the egg hitting the griddle like a nuke going thermo at Bikini Island in the '50s. The yolk spreads like a supernova, in slow motion, while the soundtrack jacks up the sound of sizzling until it acquires the roaring intensity of all the sinners in Hell roasting unto eternity. But the yolk's on him, not us, because we've seen eggs fried before. It's not that big a deal.
The stylizations are necessary to disguise the thin story line. Shorn of slo-mo, subliminal images and ancillary film school strokes, there's about 30 minutes of story.
Patricia Arquette plays a hairstylist (no jokes along the lines of "How big a stretch can that be?") who receives from her globe-trotting mom a rosary--strictly as a post-ironic affectation, no religious meaning intended--that we know was in the possession of a peculiarly holy priest whose recent death in Brazil provoked a marble statue of the Virgin to issue copious tears of blood.
Arquette's Frankie Paige soon comes down with a serious case of crucifixion envy. Her wrists begin to sport bloody spike wounds, as do her ankles; her forehead blossoms with thorn bites; on her back erupts a mesh of lash wounds. What's odd is the known syndrome of stigmata usually attends those of a faith so intense almost anybody would suspect a case of psychological heebie-jeebies. But Frankie doesn't know Jesus from Bruce. A professed atheist, she is an odd specimen for this affliction.
Enter ace Vatican investigator Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne, in Jason Miller's role in "The Exorcist"), first glimpsed checking out the bleeding marble Mary. Sent to check out the bleeding Pittsburgh Frankie, he's quick to ID her occasional bouts of automatic writing as an Aramaic script from the period of the historical Jesus. He checks with sources in the Vatican and learns that the scraps of ancient lingo may come from a Gospel of Jesus uncovered by three intrepid priest-archaeologists who were subsequently demoted and its contents suppressed.
Soon counter-plotters from the church, led by a malevolently scowly Jonathan Pryce, are trying to prevent Father Kiernan from saving Frankie and making the new Word known. It's pretty powerful stuff, suggesting, like, it's okay to pray outside the church. For this meager wisp of apostasy, the film suggests libelously, a prelate is willing to strangle a known innocent? Shame! Somebody's not going to Heaven.
Worse by far is Wainwright's obsession with crucifixion imagery. This young man never met a spike he didn't love. Frankie bleeds so much and so extravagantly, and is pierced so luridly, that the film itself comes to feel unclean, like those fetish jobs where women in heels trample mice.
He's hypocritical on the issue of the church, hating its rigidity, its rule, its hegemony, but loving its eye candy, including doves (as both birds and souls), flames, vaulted cathedrals, priestly headquarters as rich as San Simeon and, particularly, holy liquids, whether blood or water or blood in water.
This movie is truly all wet, in the worst possible way.
Stigmata (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for scenes of violence directed at a helpless woman and an obsession with crucifix imagery.
CAPTION: Patricia Arquette as the unbelieving hairstylist.