Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Supernatural Movie Reviews: Stigmata

So, I was torn between End of Days and Stigmata for this week, wanting to bang out another nineties non-classic before hitting up a current blockbuster next week. Ultimately, it was the latter’s availability as a Netflix streaming title that clinched it.

So let’s do this.


Year: 1999
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne
Directed by: Rupert Wainwright

Basic Plot:
Frankie (Arquette) is a care-free, worldly hairdresser (working at a tattoo/piercing parlor where you can almost see the hepatitis) whose life changes when she receives a gift from her mother in the mail—the crucifix of a priest who recently died in Brazil. She starts experiencing the stigmata (although she has no idea what it is). Enter Garbriel Byrne (who plays the devil in the other movie I was considering), an investigator sent by the Vatican to look into alleged miracles surrounding the priest’s death. He is intrigued, but must leave his work to investigate Frankie's alleged stigmata. Eventually, it becomes clear that Frankie is actually possessed by the dead priest (via his rosary?) and this all has something to do with the “Missing Jesus Gospel,” which the movie goes on to identify (in more than one way) as the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.  Hijinx ensues.

Cast and Crew:
Okay, the writer of this thing hasn’t really written anything else of note. He did an episode of the short-lived Nightmare on Elm Street TV spinoff, “Freddy's Nightmares,” which I probably watched as an eleven-year-old through the fuzz on FOX 66, and then regretted it when I was too freaked out to sleep.

The director’s résumé is similarly spotty. Apart from directing Disney’s kid comedy Blank Check, he seems to have been mostly a music video director, including MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”  and some stuff by N.W.A.

The cast, on the other hand, is all-conference. I love Patricia Arquette (even though her acting is frequently panned). I love that she talks like a regular person and that she never got her janky teeth fixed. I love her work so much that I almost watched an episode of her show Medium once. But then I did something else instead. I’m also a big fan of Byrne, going back to the Usual Suspects.  The two leads share great chemistry on-screen.

In the background, it was nice to see Lindsey Bluth in a bit part. And...is that emergency room doctor Joan Cusack? Nope. It's Ann Cusack. Bet you didn't know there was an Ann Cusack. Well, there is. The corrupt milquetoast Cardinal is played by the now-easily-recognized milquetoast governor Weatherby Swann (of Pirates fame) and, if I had seen the new GI Joe reboot a couple years ago, I’d probably point out that he also played the milquetoast U.S. President in that.

Billy Corgan (who once penned the heartbreaking words, “And I still believe that I cannot be saved!” and who may or may not have become some strain of Christian in 2009) provides the Dust Brothers-esque score.  I think it’s pretty much awesome, although I remember IMDb as a whole condemning it when this movie first came out.

Merits and Demerits:
I honestly don’t mind formulaic movies, but come on . . .  Here’s the routine: candles blow themselves out (and re-light themselves), birds fly away loudly, stuff randomly starts on fire, the main character bleeds a bunch, people cross themselves. Repeat. Add demons. 

And again with the Virgin Mary statuette crying?! Really? Only this time it’s tears of blood, so it gets extra credit for lameness. Add to that a scene of a possessed girl levitating over her bed; nothing played out about that.

All the same, I find much to commend here, film-wise, and I realize that it’s probably because of my own foibles. First of all, unlike last week’s subject, Stigmata was filmed in California, but makes great use of establishing shots and well-designed, well-lit sets to convince us we’re in an extra-depressing version of Pittsburg. It’s very urban in a stylish way and this pleases me. I love this sort of post-Grunge thrift strore chic so prominent in this era of popular moviemaking.

The main character has the requisite black friend with purple hair who calls her “girlfriend.”  You have the arty shot from inside the microwave, (including a mug that says “cup”on it). In other words, this is the late-'90s, when music video directors still thought they could go big by channeling Tarantino through Fincher without irony and self-reference,  resulting in lots of cool shots of chipping paint, flickering flourescent lights, rain running down windows, grimy coffee shops, and desaturated colors (a la like Fight Club and Se7en). Honestly, watching this made me miss the '90s a little bit.

This premature nostalgia for my college years is magnified by the presence of old school scanners, 3.5" disks, and giant laptops. Oh, and DOS (DOS!) is central to a very tense scene involving evil Vatican officials and anachronistiaclly monochrome screens.

But the story. Ugh.

Theological Lowpoints:
Where to begin? How about with the name? For a movie called Stigmata, there’s a real lack of understanding about what the stigmata are. Granted, I’m a Protestant minister, so I don’t put great stock in this phenomenon anyway, but even I know that the back of Frankie’s shirt being ripped up will she is “scourged” by an invisible whip is a ridiculously ill-informed portrayal.  I know wikipedia didn't exist in 1999, but this kind of research would take mere minutes.

And then, how about the complete misunderstanding of what possession is?  I guess in Hollywood, where good people turn into angels when they die, it’s not too big of a stretch to have someone possessed by the spirit of a dead man, but from a biblical perspective, it’s beyond absurd. And really, I can’t figure out if the dead priest was actual “a holy man, very holy man,” as one character tells us or not. If so, why does he say all that filthy, somewhat blasphemous stuff that he does (through Frankie) and beat the crap out of one of his colleagues repeatedly (again, through Frankie)? It seems like they didn't really think this through . . .

And when I try to (think it through, that is), here’s what I come up with: the tears of the statue really are the blood of Christ. Why? Well, God is extra upset about . . . something. So much so, that he singles out the poor lady who has this dead priest's crucifix and starts torturing her with horrible violence and visions of freaky stuff like women dropping their babies into traffic. But, then again, maybe that’s just a result of being possessed by the spirit of a nice old priest who who has turned into a demonic figure. Other side effects include: automatic writing, your eyes turning different colors (like Teen Wolf), and receiving the stigmata, which (according to the movie) is usually reserved for the very pious. And all of this is happening in order to somehow get the word out that the Gospel of Thomas exists—a fact which is already common knowledge in our world.

But this movie clearly takes place in an alternate reality, one where an experienced and educated priest can be shocked by the news that there are (gasp!THIRTY-FIVE Gospels?! And a Vatican linguist can respond (with a straight face) that this is to be expected because “everyone had a different experience of Jesus. All the Gospels are just interpretations, memories, dreams, reflections.” Yes, this makes him sound like a college sophomore, but the guy says it with an accent, so we’re supposed to buy it, along with Gabe’s expositional response: “And there’s no one Gospel in Jesus’ actual words?” No, there’s not, says Fr. Accent.  “We’re all blind men in a cave, looking for a candle that was lit 2,000 years ago.”

And herein lies the real theological lowpoint. You see, I pastor a week of Christian summer camp (7th and 8th graders) each summer.  And the summer after Stigmata came out, at least five kids asked me about the Jesus Gospel spoken of in Stigmata.  (Who the heck would let their twelve-year-old watch this movie?)  I actually did a full-on exposé/talk on the subject, correcting the tapestry of factual errors presented in this flick, starting with the errors about this particular document.

In addition to the direct quotes included in the movie, the 'Dude, this stuff is real' text at the end of the film confirms that the writer was thinking of the Gospel of Thomas all along. But there’s no reason in the world to think that the Gospel of Thomas was written in Aramaic or that it predated the canonical Gospels. Or that it is the “actual words of Jesus.” That's just a claim of convenience, forgivable as a plot contrivance in a movie, but not when it's presented as fact and confusing my youth group kids and campers. The truth is readily discovered, as is the fact that the Vatican has done nothing to suppress the so-called “Gnostic Gospels.”

And, by the way, that’s Paleo-Hebrew you’re writing on the wall, not “Aramaic from the time of Jesus.” (Ironically, by the time of Jesus, Jews in Palestine were writing Hebrew with an Aramaic script, not the other way around..)

Beyond that whole mess, there’s the perpetually adolescent vibe that permeates the film, reminding me of those QUESTION AUTHORITY bumper stickers that were everywhere (including my bumper) fifteen years ago. Let’s review: the one good church in this story is rogue, connected to no institutional body. The good priest has been defrocked and excommunicated.  The other good priest is jaded and hates the hierarchy and the very idea of the church. The real climax for his character is when he finally throws his superior across the room and then sheds his clericals for some sweet stone-washed jeans.

We might sum up the movie’s message with a line from another excommunicated priest (played by Boris The Bullet Dodger): “I love Jesus! I don’t need an institution between him and me! No priests! No churches!” He then launches into a quote the Gospel of Thomas: “The Kingdom of God is inside you and all around you, not in mansions of wood and  stone. Split a piece of wood and I am there, lift a stone and you will find me.” This is in contrast to the Cardinal, who reminds Byrne’s character that “the cornerstone of our faith is the Church, not a crying statue.” Paging Dr. Strawman! Can I maybe get a third perspective? One that holds to Christ as the cornerstone of my faith, while also acknowledging that he established for himself a Church?

Theological Highpoints:
There aren’t many to speak of. The struggle of Gabriel Byrne’s character could have been one. He’s a scientist-turned-priest and never sure which identity is really him. The look on his face while he says, “This is the blood of Christ” while administering communion (to whom, I’m not sure) sets up a theological tension that is never explored, just lazily redacted.

There is some value in seeing modern doctors and nurses dealing with the wounds that accompanied Jesus’ crucifixion (one at a time and then all at once), reminding the viewer of how horrifying a death Jesus chose to endure on our behalf.

And, while I hate the use of the crucifix as a kitschy image like a skull and crossbones or that stupid Rolling Stones tongue thing, when they intercut it with shots establishing Frankie’s carnal lifestyle we are reminded again of the reason for the cross. Some of these raw materials here could have been used for a powerful story that rings true. Unfortunately, they weren’t.

Best Scares:
  • The reflection of the old priest in the mirror in a photograph of Frankie.
  • It’s wicked-creepy the first time she speaks with a man’s voice, rolls her eyes back in her head, and “becomes” the old priest, shuffling along in her retro elevator sandles. Patricia Arquette is way underrated.
  • Even though you know it’s coming, I jumped when she shouted, “ANSWER ME!” and then beat the tar out of poor Gabe. 

Most Memorable Lines:
  • “Am I going crazy or is Frankie hitting on a priest?” Why yes, she is. And it actually helps with character development. The relationship between Frankie and Father I-forget is the only believable thing in this contrived story.
  • “You know what's scarier than not believing in God? Believing in him...if it isn't God doing this to me, then who is?”
  • “Those words weren’t nonsenese. It’s actually a very specific language—a form of Aramaic that hasn't been used in 1900 years.” A very specific language, eh? As opposed to a non-specific language?
  • “Jesus said, Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me.” Oh, just shut up, Fake Gnostic Jesus. You're boring. And you’re not nearly as deep as you think you are.

BTW, if you have a preference for next week, let me know. I'm thinking Insidious or Possessed.


  1. Fantastic. Your voice and personality really come through in these reviews. Keep 'em coming. I'm waiting for Fallen.