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by: James Berardinelli

Stigmata are bleeding injuries that represent the five wounds received by Jesus when he was crucified: nails through the wrists & feet, lashes on the back, scratches on the scalp from the crown of thorns, and a spear through the side. The phenomena of stigmata is neither well understood nor extensively studied, but those afflicted with it are invariably deeply religious and view their condition as a gift of God. Director Rupert Wainwright and screenwriter Tom Lazarus have chosen to use this as the jumping-off point for an unconventional thriller.

Over the years, Christian mythology has provided the skeleton for a large number of thrillers (including The Omen series and The Prophecy), many of which are firmly anchored in "Revelation," the most cryptic book of the New Testament. Those who view the trailer for Stigmata may incorrectly assume that this film uses similar groundwork. Actually, the plot has nothing to do with the coming apocalypse, the four horsemen, or God's judgment upon man. Instead of looking forward, Stigmata looks to the past to question the nature of what Christian leaders have labeled as the canonical (as opposed to apocryphal) Word of God. In the process, the movie challenges some of the means by which the Catholic Church has maintained its power base for nearly two millennia.

At the center of the story, providing a human perspective on issues with vast and far-reaching implications, are Frankie Page (Patricia Arquette), a 23-year old Pittsburgh hairdresser who is a confessed athiest, and Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), a Roman Catholic Priest who investigates (and disproves) miracles. Circumstances conspire to bring these two together, then force them to re-examine their views on spirituality and religion. Andrew has always thought of himself as more of a scientist than a theologian, but Stigmata's events generate a severe test of faith. Meanwhile, for Frankie, who does not believe in God, the knowledge that she is being used as a tool to present His message is a terrifying realization - especially when she understands that this unwanted role may lead to her death.

When Stigmata begins, Frankie is just one of Pittsburgh's many anonymous citizens. That all changes when she receives a package from her globe-trotting mother, who has recently been vacationing in Brazil. Included in a box of odds and ends is an old rosary. Within 24 hours of touching the elegant circlet of black beads, Frankie is in the hospital with a deep puncture wound in each wrist - the first of the five stigmata. She receives the second, a crisscrossing of her back with the lashes of a whip, while on a subway train, and in plain view of a priest, who contacts Rome about the strange occurrence. Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce), the head of the Vatican's "Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints", sends Andrew Kiernan, his best investigator, to Pittsburgh to meet the woman and determine what's going on. What Andrew finds not only tests his own belief system, but threatens the authority of the modern church.

Stigmata is an unusually intelligent and original thriller. While it loosely resembles end-of-the-world efforts like The Seventh Sign, the plot is more thoughtful and restrained. Stigmata takes an unflinching look at the power of and the capability for corruption in organized religion. There is an extensive back story that students of early Christian writings will appreciate, and the ultimate message embraced by the film is one of deep spiritual significance. As for the supernatural forces brought to bear - the only demons haunting these characters are their own.

Director Wainright went out of his way to imprint Stigmata with a unique style. The film has a bleached look that mutes colors while emphasizing blacks and whites. During the sequences in which Frankie receives her wounds, there are a number of qu


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