It seems now more than ever that religious phenomenon usually associated with or witnessed by practicing Catholics is occurring worldwide including sightings of Mary and statues of Mary weeping. Another phenomenon is stigmata, people spontaneously inflicted by the wounds of Christ: pierced hands and feet, thorny scrapes to the head, whip marks on the back, and a puncture wound to the side.
A supernatural thriller called STIGMATA explores why a young atheist woman receives these marks, and why they are more than a passing interest to members of the Catholic Church. Definitely creepy, directed with frantic, jumpy images and edited with music-video stylized cuts, this is a movie sure to infuriate some Catholics, because it challenges the Church’s authority while mixing Christian and false-religious elements.
No stranger to weird movie roles, Patricia Arquette plays Pittsburgh hairdresser, Frankie Paige. Young, funky and a self-declared atheist, her normal life is disrupted by severe wounds to the wrists after her mother gives her a rosary that originally belonged to a deceased priest from Brazil. Doctors can’t explain it. Some think she might have epilepsy. Her friends begin to whisper. On a subway, she later receives whip mark wounds to her back, and she also has moments of memory loss. A priest next to her notices her wounds, and Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) is called to investigate. Father Kiernan is a sort of secret agent for the Vatican who studies strange religious phenomenon and alleged miracles.
Father Kiernan and Frankie meet and soon spends lots of time together. Father Kiernan hears her speak ancient Aramaic, sees her write massive amounts of Aramaic text on the wall and also observes her receiving Christ’s wounds to her head and feet. Father Kiernan’s boss, Cardinal Daniel Houseman (Jonathan Pryce), intervenes, but actually tries to kill Frankie. It is later discovered that the Aramaic texts which she holds point to an alleged fifth gospel discovered in 1945, which purports to be written by Jesus himself. It is said that this Gnostic gospel contains words undermining the authority of the Catholic Church. Hence, the Cardinal is interested in silencing Frankie’s message, or lose his power as a religious authority.
STIGMATA is a mixed bag of pro-Christian and anti-Christian theology. Unlike THE EXORCIST, it is not meant to be a testimony to the power of Satan, nor a direct clash between good and evil over the soul of one person. Here, the focus is Church authority and theology, and maintaining personal power. The eternal soul of Frankie and the Devil’s work inside her are only secondary to plot and theme. Hence, the complications are broader, very pertinent to Catholics and perhaps not so personal as to be terrifying on an individual level.
Here are the nuts and bolts.
First, the good stuff. God is recognized as Creator. It is clearly stated that Jesus lived and was crucified. Through not refuted, Christ’s resurrection is not mentioned. Satan is not mentioned, nor is the theology of God’s kingdom examined. Also, a Catholic priest upholds his vow to chastity.
Borderline content includes the repetition through many sources of Jesus’ words in Luke 17:21, “the Kingdom of God is within you.” A better translation of this passage would be “the kingdom of God is amongst you.” Almost the same words are used by Jesus in other situations. In Luke 10:9, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is near you.” Christians understand Jesus’ words to refer to the physical kingdom, represented by those on earth who are under the kingship of Jesus Christ, who are His people, His church. The movie equivocates and presents this phrase with what could be a Gnostic or New Age spin, that the kingdom of God is inside an individual, just as a Gnostic might contend that the whole universe is inside each individual. Thus, in the way that it is presented, this biblical statement subtly be challenging the authority of the church.
The bad stuff is manifold, but also slightly illogical in its own premises. A power hungry Cardinal is moved to murder to protect his position in the Catholic Church, as he claims to uphold the Church’s role as a cornerstone of faith. A priest dies and it is implied that his soul possesses Frankie. Finally, the film suggests that the Catholic Church is erroneous for declaring a fifth gospel as heresy. The film fails to mention that Protestant leaders would also declare the fifth gospel heresy. Yet, the major irony of all this is that the words quoted in this “new” gospel are already found in the already canonized four Gospels. Thus, all the rigmarole about a priest possessing Frankie to carry a “new” message to the Catholic Church is moot, because the message as stated is already found in existing Scripture!
Dramatically, Frankie manifesting stigmata is rather irrelevant to the theme of challenging church authority. It is just a bloody, cinematic device that rides tandem with her possession. Though it is creepy, it is not that scary – because the anticipation of scares, i.e., suspense, is greater than the actual ghoulish apparitions conjured up by the special effects wizards. Yet, skillful direction and editing punch up the horror elements, providing more chills than the poorly done THE HAUNTING.
Regrettably, STIGMATA has a mixture of good and bad in it. Ironically, STIGMATA suggests that both Frankie, an atheist, and Father Kiernan, more of a man of science than of faith, come to accept the words of the fifth gospel, that “The kingdom of God is within you,” although they probably interpret it in a Gnostic, New Age manner since the movie doesn’t explain salvation and repentance. Therefore, in the final analysis, this movie proclaims occult, New Age hooey.
Confused, but ultimately anti-Christian worldview with positive biblical & Christian elements including endorsement of God as creator & Catholic priests rejects sexual advances, but also strong anti-Catholic premise rebuking the established Catholic church as cornerstone of faith & many false-religious or occult elements such as spirit of deceased priest possesses young woman & endorsement of a New Gospel; 8 obscenities & 7 profanities; graphic, bloody images of the wounds of Christ including close-up images of nails driven through hands & crown of thorns driven into head, car accident, possessed woman throws man, possessed woman mutilates self, priest chokes woman nearly to death, fire, & explosions; no sex but prostitutes tease priest & woman makes a sexual advance towards priest which he rebuffs; obscured side female nudity; alcohol use; smoking; and, lying & strange phenomenon including levitation, bizarre images & speaking in strange voices.