A new film on supernatural phenomena
'Stigmata' and the markings of faith
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By Andy Culpepper
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Whatever happened to Mary?
The British musical collective Chumbawamba poses that question, somewhat irreverently, in its 1997 song "Mary, Mary," a pulsing, techno-beat track the title of which presumably refers to Christianity's Virgin Mary. The up-tempo offering leads off the soundtrack for the film "Stigmata" and resonates under fast-paced visuals in the opening titles. The combination of sight and sound serves notice that, whatever else this movie may be, it's not your father's horror flick.
"Stigmata" tells the story of Frankie Paige, a young hairdresser who lives an unassuming life in Pittsburgh until the day she suddenly finds herself bleeding from deep gashes in her wrist. It's the first indication that Frankie is in for one hell of a spiritual road trip.
Patricia Arquette stars as Frankie. Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Pryce and Nia Long co-star. The film is directed by Rupert Wainwright from a script by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage.
The television promotional spots created by MGM, the studio releasing the film, tease audiences with all manner of dark elements suggesting demonic possession, among other things. But there's also that user-friendly Gen-X soundtrack accompanied by a music-video look. Think "The Exorcist" meets MTV -- with some food for thought thrown in.
Is Frankie suicidal or is something else at work here? Frankie's cuts resemble the "stigmata" -- in Christian doctrine the wounds suffered by Jesus at his crucifixion.
The Vatican sends a priest to investigate Frankie's situation. What follows in this supernatural thriller is the unraveling of a mystery as old as Christianity.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and Tom
Literature on the subject records isolated episodes in which some devout followers of Christ are said to have exhibited similar phenomena. St. Francis of Assisi is generally thought to have been the first to display the appearance of stigmata. Subsequent cases recorded in Catholic Church writings have involved true believers.
Central to the plot of "Stigmata" is the discovery of an ancient document, a set of scrolls believed to be a missing gospel from those New Testament texts generally acknowledged as having been written by the disciples of Jesus.
Just such a document was found in 1945, a collection of writings believed by some specialists to be the Gospel of St. Thomas. The significance of this find is explored in Burton L. Mack's "Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth," published in 1996 by Harper San Francisco.
Rupert Wainwright read Mack's book and found himself captivated by the topic.
"It completely blew the lid off everything I knew about Christianity, about the Bible," says the director. "It made me review all of this material in the most fascinating way. So I wanted to include a little bit of that in the movie so people wouldn't think we made this up. The gospel we refer to in the movie is not a Hollywood fabrication. It's for real."
Carrying the word
Arquette's character becomes something of an unwitting messenger where this missing gospel is concerned. The existence of this unearthed document is key to her involvement in the cinematic conflict -- the Church's refusal to recognize the validity of any potential additions to the Bible.
Filmgoers who detect a note of familiarity in Frankie's name have reason to congratulate themselves. "Frankie" is diminutive for "Francis," as in the saint. Wainwright confirms the choice was intentional. Her last name, Paige, turns out to have been a homonymous coincidence. Reminded that another term for a messenger is "page," Wainwright smiles with surprise. "That's more than we intended, but I'll take it.
"I think that when you have material that's very rich and really fascinating," he says, "every little thing suddenly starts to makes sense almost whether it was meant to or not. It's so scary, it's so miraculous, it's so paranormal, it's so chilling, but it's rich and satisfying and so you can't help reading into every single element that's there."
His star professes a lifelong interest in the subject matter dating back to Catholic grade school. "But when I read the script," Arquette says, "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. Well, this isn't nice stigmata like I thought stigmata was going to be -- angel sounds. All pretty.'"
The film contains several graphically violent scenes, all of which relate to the supernatural events surrounding Frankie's experience of some unseen spirit. Many of the sequences are so bloody that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) -- the film-ratings advisory board -- would approve only one clip for use in broadcast stories about the film.
"It's interesting," says Wainwright, "because in most trailers, you feel as if you've seen the best of the movie. In our movie, you've barely seen any of it. Because the MPAA has a rule that you're not allowed to see blood in a trailer and our movie is entirely about blood. Sometimes in a fairly gruesome way, sometimes in a much richer, more complex, more fascinating way, but it's always about blood because it's about the wounds this woman receives.
"They're very stringent about what people can see and what they can't see. Kind of like the Roman Catholic Church," he says, somewhat facetiously. "They're protecting our souls, and thank the Lord for that."
Arquette says she attempts to strike a balance in sharing her opinion of the film's portrayal of the Church. While the screenplay has a fictional Vatican official come off in a less-than-flattering way, Arquette delivers a positive counterpoint: "There is also a hero in the movie," she says, "and the hero is also in the Church, and he's in the Church at the end of the movie. So I don't know that it's necessarily, 'Church, bad: Walk away from Church.' Because, really -- this woman develops a faith in God."
On the subject of Frankie's last name, Arquette says, "Yeah, she was a messenger. She was very subconscious. She was not living in her whole body. She was living, like, in this percentage of her being; she didn't have that depth yet.
"It was a very interesting character. And it was interesting for me because I really believe in God. To play an atheist -- it felt very dangerous and naughty to me -- scary."
Trials and tribulations
On the set, the actress encountered more than enough incentive to sense danger, let alone to be scared. The production notes tell us -- with hyperbole typical of Hollywood -- that she was "subjected to just about every physical and mechanical special effect imaginable."
The most grueling moments may have resulted from a levitation arm used to suspend Arquette in a stationary vertical position symbolizing the crucifixion. "I was in that thing for hours," she says, "and at a certain point, I was like, 'Let me out of this thing right now. I have to pee. I've been here for hours.'
"I could barely breathe," she explains. "I'm pretty easygoing, and I go and go -- and then, no more."
Arquette's career suggests a fondness for challenging material. In 1995, she starred in director John Boorman's epic, "Beyond Rangoon," playing a woman trapped in fierce political upheaval in the former Burma, now called Myanmar. Two years earlier, she co-starred in Tony Scott's violence-ridden, drug-themed "True Romance," written by Quentin Tarantino.
With "Stigmata," Arquette says she wants to generate discussion of a subject that may be familiar to relatively few filmgoers. While she'd like to entertain audiences, she says she's hoping for more.
"What do you believe, in religion?" she asks. "What do you think about this? Are there really other gospels? And how many gospels are there in the world?"
Rupert Wainwright agrees. "Go see the movie. Make your own mind up. Don't tell anybody else," he says.
"Don't let anybody else tell you what it's about. Decide for yourself."
"Stigmata" opens nationwide on Friday, September 10. It runs 102 minutes and is rated R for sequences of violence, strong language and sexual content.
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