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Stigmatized: Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) is the victim of strange supernatural phenomena in 'Stigmata.'

Missive in Action

Patricia Arquette takes a supernatural beating in 'Stigmata'

By Michelle Goldberg

LIKE MOST of the recent spate of horror movies, Stigmata is a tease, a film that seems as if it might be scary for a few minutes before fizzling into silliness. The plot quickly grows ridiculous, and obnoxiously showy camerawork and overwrought MTV effects constantly undermine Stigmata. The film's cheap stylings make identification and involvement--even the kind that can make a raucously bad movie fun to watch--impossible.

Patricia Arquette plays Frankie Paige, a 23-year-old loft-living hipster hairdresser in Philadelphia. Paige is afflicted with savage, invisible attacks, terrifying visions and bizarre bloody wounds after her mother sends her a rosary stolen from a dead priest in a tiny Brazilian town. Because the initial wounds pierce her wrists, her friends and her doctors think she's suicidal. In one especially disturbing scene, Paige is violently whipped around in a careening subway car.

This incident, witnessed by a priest, ultimately leads Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Bryne) into Paige's life and sends Stigmata spiraling into ponderous absurdity. Kiernan is a Vatican investigator who travels the world debunking false miracles. In a preposterous coincidence, he has just returned from the tiny town where Paige's haunted crucifix originated. With Kiernan on the scene, Paige's possession accelerates. The first moments of Stigmata are compelling because of Frankie's terrifying, frustrating sense of being buffeted about by unknown forces. Once those forces show themselves, the movie becomes an Exorcist manqué choked with demonic clichés: uprolled eyes, fire, halfhearted blasphemy. Of course, an attraction develops between Frankie and Kiernan, sparked by nothing but the old Hollywood rule that any man and women left alone together for more than five minutes inevitably fall in love.

At first, Paige's possession seems either Satanic or like a harbinger of the second coming. But we soon learn that she's been taken over by the soul of a renegade priest who has discovered a lost gospel. This gospel, because it challenges Vatican doctrine, has been suppressed by the papal bureaucracy. From there, Stigmata turns into almost an evangelical screed. The message the hijacked Frankie has to deliver is basically that of born-again Christianity--that believers need to have a direct relationship with Christ, unmediated by ornate cathedrals and the like. The ultimate battle isn't between a priest and a demon, as in The Exorcist, but between Kiernan and his sinister boss, an entrenched cardinal determined to maintain his political position by quashing Paige's missive. It's one of the most anticlimactic finales in horror history.

'Stigmata' (R), directed by Rupert Wainwright, written by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage, photographed by Jeffrey L. Kimball and starring Patricia Arquette and Gabriel Byrne, plays at selected theaters.

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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