Published September 1, 1999
So far, the strongest contender for worst movie of the year has got to be Stigmata, written by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage and directed by Rupert Wainwright. Not only does it make explicit — and almost unbelievably crass — Hollywood’s characteristically anti-religious bent, but its advocacy of an alternative spirituality is laughably clumsy, a hodgepodge of hippie-New Age solipsism and fashionable conspiracy theory (why won’t the Church acknowledge the authenticity of the apocryphal Gospel of St Thomas?) for which it has the gall to claim a divine sanction. This comes in the form of the Stigmata of the wounds of the crucified Christ, as visited upon an atheist and sexual adventuress called Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) who works as a hairdresser in Pittsburgh.
These marks of most solemn sanctity, hitherto reserved for a few highly favored saints, are here reduced to a kind of voodoo, since they come upon Frankie as a result of her mother’s sending her as a souvenir a set of rosary beads plucked by an urchin from the fingers of a dead Brazilian priest. Moreover, they come with the kind of picturesque manifestations of demonic possession to which the movies introduced us in the 1970s, in which the victim has weird, staring eyes and superhuman strength and speaks in a voice not her own a mixture of gibberish and threat. There are indoor thunderstorms. The ostensible justification for such stuff is that “the nearer they [stigmatics] are to God, the more open they are to temptation”—and hence (presumably) some variety of demonic possession. But the real reason is cinematic. God, in order to be sufficiently visually interesting, is usefully represented as a Poltergeist.
Frankie, whose only credo hitherto has been “I love being me,” is possessed with the spirit of the dead Brazilian priest. He, we learn, had been associated with an underground movement within the Catholic Church to publish the mythical gospel of Jesus, said to be written by Himself in His own actual words, which the Church (wouldn’t you know it?) is keeping under wraps. The news of Frankie’s stigmata at first only induces the Vatican to send a scientific investigator, Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), who knows nothing of this conspiracy. But soon she is writing, in her trance-like state, in Aramaic on the walls of her studio apartment, and a picture of this screed, faxed to Rome, puts the Church in a panic. The missing Gospel of Jesus — it’s turned up in Pittsburgh!
And what, you may ask, does this Gospel say? Well, we don’t get the whole thing, which is hidden away in the Vatican, but the bit that Frankie transcribes at the behest of the dead priest inside her says this: “Split a piece of wood and I am there; lift a stone and you will find me. . .The kingdom of heaven is inside you and all around you and not in mansions of wood and stone.” So then, who needs the Church and the hierarchy, its rituals and traditions and, above all, its silly rules? Every man his own savior! Hallelujah! No wonder they’re trying to keep it hidden from us! As another priest involved in the underground, played by the weird-looking Rade Sherbedgia, explains to Father Kiernan, the Jesus Gospel will “destroy the authority of the modern church.” Rather oddly for a priest, he insists that “I don’t need an institution between Jesus and me.”
At least since Dostoyevsky’s portrait of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, the individualistic tendency in modern thought, where it has shrunk from unabashed atheism, has willed itself to believe in a gentle, permissive, unworldly, anti-institutional Jesus who, if He came back today, would be put to death by those latter-day Pharisees in the Vatican just to preserve their own power. But Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor was allowed to make as persuasively as possible his own Machiavellian case. His counterpart in Stigmata, Cardinal Daniel Houseman (Jonathan Pryce), has no case to make but is simply a ruthless, power-mad villain, out for his own ends.
In order to prevent the news of the Jesus Gospel from leaking out. The Cardinal is prepared, with the help of a couple of nuns, to strangle the delicate Frankie (whatever happened to her superhuman strength?), crying out as he does so: “You will not destroy my church!” Fortunately if predictably, she is saved by Father Kiernan who has, equally predictably, fallen in love with her and whose faith in her and the Poltergeist-God leaps up like a flame even as his faith in the discredited Church is beaten down. Once again, the sinister forces of religious reaction have been defeated and the world has been made safe for hippie morality and hippie narcissism — at least in the movies.