Good tale at heart of a mess of a movie

September 10, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Stigmata" may be best understood as a cautionary tale to those young modern primitives who like to pierce and tattoo themselves with totemic spiritual symbols: Embrace crucifixion chic at your peril, because if Jesus doesn't get you, the devil will.

At least that might be the point of Rupert Wainwright's busy, over-stylized mess of a movie, in which Patricia Arquette stars as Frankie Page, a Pittsburgh hairdresser who becomes a human battleground for good and evil.

By the time "Stigmata" reveals the reasons for Frankie's unexplained bleeding from the wrists, forehead and feet -- not to mention her spontaneous fluency in the ancient language of Aramaic -- filmgoers can't be sure just who is battling for her soul. But narrative sense is the last thing on the mind of a movie that wants to cash in on supernatural elements of its story instead of exploring its genuinely intriguing spiritual meaning.

Actually, the main thing on Wainwright's mind is style, which "Stigmata" has in excess. It's clear that this director cut his teeth on Madison Avenue and MTV from the movie's first sequence, in which a marble Madonna weeps tears of blood in what is supposed to be a poor Brazilian church. Having never met a candle he didn't light, Wainwright tricks out the improbably elaborate sanctuary in burning wax, stylishly praying natives and kids with angel wings in a scene of rich but wildly overstated texture.

Wainwright's kitchen-sink approach is a shame, because once that story kicks in, "Stigmata" turns out to have a pretty good mystery at its core. When Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) is sent by the Vatican to investigate Frankie's condition, he stumbles into a centuries-old mystery involving a missing Gospel. But Wainwright is clearly less interested in mining this rich vein than in riffing on "The Exorcist" and Madonna videos.

Arquette has the physical presence to play a woman in the throes of ecstasy and agony, but her wispy voice and otherwise colorless persona don't help to characterize a woman who is literally fractured by Wainwright's frenetic filmmaking. Even Byrne can't maintain his dignity when the proceedings reach "Exorcist" proportions.

"I just want my life back, OK?" Frankie pleads at one point. By the time "Stigmata" reaches its silly conclusion, we know just what she means.

`Stigmata'

Starring Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Pryce

Directed by Rupert Wainwright

Released by MGM Pictures

Rated R (intense violent sequences, language, some sexuality)

Running time 105 minutes

Sun score * 1/2

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