Exorcise in Futility

As demonic-possession thrillers go, Stigmata's no head-turner

Modern word processing has made life easier for screenwriters: no need to retype some old classic with your own little changes; nowadays you can just download the screenplay for, let's say, The Exorcist, search for "adolescent girl," replace with "twentysomething single woman," and -- voilà! -- you've got a brand-new movie. In that exact case, you've got Stigmata.

Of course, I exaggerate. Stigmata isn't really identical to The Exorcist; if it were, it would be a damned better movie . . . or, I suppose, a better damned movie. As it is, the similarities are so great they constantly invite wholly unwelcome comparisons.

No, Stigmata is different. It doesn't open with a setup sequence in dusty North Africa; it opens with a setup sequence in dusty rural Brazil. Father Alameida (Jack Donner), an aging priest, is translating an ancient manuscript. (Why he's translating it into English rather than Portuguese is never explained.) Alameida dies; a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary starts crying tears of real blood; the Vatican sends miracle-sleuth Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) to investigate.

At the same time, someone steals Father Alameida's rosary from his coffin and sells it to an American tourist, who sends the knickknack to her daughter in Pittsburgh -- a city where, to judge by this movie, all buildings have leaky roofs. The daughter, a punkish hairdresser named Frankie (Patricia Arquette), barely looks at the rosary -- she's a devout atheist -- but it may as well be a vial of Ebola virus for the effect it has on her life.

In no time flat, Frankie is having seizures and visions and developing severe, inexplicable wounds in her hands. After she accosts a priest in the subway, asking him in a deep, unfamiliar voice if he's Father Andrew Kiernan, the Vatican gets word of her situation and dispatches Kiernan to investigate. (The latter scene doesn't quite make sense in a way that suggests sloppy last-minute changes: Does the Pittsburgh priest's letter mention Kiernan by name, or is his assignment merely a coincidence?)

As Frankie deteriorates, she also starts making a play for the priest, though it's never totally clear whether it's Frankie's doing or the evil influence of whomever or whatever has possessed her -- which is another, even bigger confusion. The longer the film goes on, the less clear it becomes just what is happening. Is Frankie possessed by a demon? Or by the soul of Father Alameida? Or by the Gentle Shepherd himself? And, if it's either of the last two presumably benevolent spirits, why is she being tormented almost to the point of death? And why is she acting destructive and scary while under the influence?

The Exorcist was a brilliant, if nasty, piece of work. This dopey knockoff tries to be just as nasty but isn't good enough to succeed. It's hard to imagine that a large segment of the filmgoing public feels aggressively hostile to sweet, talented, hardworking Patricia Arquette, but this film should appeal most strongly to those who wish to see the actress battered and mutilated -- though the embarrassment of being in this project should nearly match her character's onscreen humiliation.

Director Rupert Wainwright has a strong style, though one that too often seems a cross between David Fincher's Se7en and an AT&T long-distance commercial. He keeps the visuals cranked up all the time, and he does manage a couple of genuinely scary moments. But at the climax, when things should be getting serious, the banging furniture and booming demonic voice invoke memories not of The Exorcist, but of the brilliant Saturday Night Live-Richard Pryor parody of that film. "Yo' mama!"

Byrne does the best he can, but the material defeats him constantly; and you can't stop wondering if he was cast simply because he has the haggard, world-weary look of the original film's Jason Miller. Jonathan Pryce, normally a restrained actor, oozes all over the scenery as an evil cardinal. (The Vatican's just going to love that.)

While the direction and performances don't help much, it's the script that's the main culprit. In addition to the basic setup never making sense -- even if you accept the most mystical reading of Catholicism as a given -- there are too many confusing minor elisions. (Why does Kiernan, late in the story, seem to remember Alameida's face but not to recognize his name, which we know he is aware of?) If a movie is going to be so totally derivative, it should at least do a better job of it.

 
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