Stigmata: Viewing the Church as Bad Guy

A long time ago, in what seems like a much different life, I had a huge crush on Gabriel Byrne. I am not exactly proud of that, but he was one of many actors that I have had crushes on, and is always the case when I have a crush on an actor, I must see every thing that they have ever done — whether or not that thing is particularly good.

This driving need led me to originally watch the film Stigmata (1999) not too long after its initial release. I did not hate it as much as other Byrne films (End of Days, I am looking at you), but it was definitely not a good film. I did find it interesting how, over a decade later, I would have to rewatch the film for a serious academic project.

Stigmata features Gabriel Byrne as Father Andrew Kiernan, who the Vatican tasks with investigating claims of miracles from around the world with the intent of debunking them. Not everything can be a miracle, after all, or that would take the miraculous out the them. During the course of his investigation, he learns about young Frankie Paige’s (very much pre-Oscar winning Patricia Arquette) apparent infliction with all of the stigmata, or the inflictions suffered by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion: the nails in palms and feet, the crown of thorns, the tears of blood, the whipped back, and the lance in the side.  The more Kiernan investigates this young woman, the more he uncovers a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church, and the more conflicted he becomes as to what his duties are.

Now, right off the bat, this all seems like a religious tale, but not necessarily one of possession and exorcism. As the film unfolds, however, the mystery reveals the real reason that Paige, an atheist, is receiving the stigmata is because she has become possessed by a dead priest who himself had been visited by these marks, and who appears to know a secret the Vatican would do anything to keep hidden. By the end of the film, Kiernan even attempts an exorcism to free Paige from this possession and the accompanying affliction.

Because of the role possession and exorcism play in this story about religious beliefs and conspiracy theories, the film does qualify for the exorcism cinema project, and represents one of those rare exorcism films to come out during the lull period of the 1980s-1990s.

What follows then are the notes and reflections from this revisit to the film Stigmata (1999).

Interesting: there is an alternate director’s ending. We are watching the version with the original theatrical ending because it would have been what had come out them to reflect and add to pop culture. We will have to watch the director’s alternate ending, however, because it could lead credence to any auteur theory critique of exorcism cinema.

We start in Brazil, one of the remaining Catholic strongholds. Also, because it is not considered as modern a culture, you can show aspects of the religious services that seem more old fashioned, more riddled with superstition and ritual than if this was in the United States. Hence the investigation that starts the movie, into the bleeding Virgin Mary statue and the other miracles at the funeral of a revered priest.

Gabriel Byrne as a priest, Father Kiernan, sent to investigate the miracle, but he is relying on science to do so, indicating his lack of faith perhaps, and the Church’s desire to distance itself from such medieval superstitions if they are not in fact real miracles.

Heavy metal theme song with the Lord’s Prayer. lol

Intercutting between images of pious icongraphy and a punky woman, Arquette’s Paige, working, partying, with the song asking “whatever happened to Mary” — which indicates that there is some disconnect between how people, and women in particular, used to be, and how they are now in the modern times of sexual liberation, as the intercutting progresses to show Paige having intercourse. So current times are sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but no God.

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Her mother bought the dead priest’s rosary and sent it to Paige — that is our connection, plus perhaps an indication of the older generation of women being concerned about the younger generation.

Odd relationship between mother and daughter — they do not talk to each other but at each other, no real listening to the other.

Paige has a negative reaction to the rosary, throwing up after examining it. She suspects pregnancy at the get go. The theme could be that the pious object has made her ill because of her impious ways.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Kiernan turns down the advances of prostitutes, who say they would give him the Vatican discount. So, kinda no good representation of women so far…

This movie has an interesting link to the subsequent Da Vinci Code, given the heresy around Jesus that it involves.

Kiernan showing consideration for people: he couldn’t remove the bleeding statue because of how important the statue was to the people’s faith. Interesting how he identifies himself as polar opposites: a priest and a scientist. Which Cardinal Daniel Houseman (Jonathan Pryce) says is his problem, that he cannot decide if he is a scientist or a priest.

Paige is still concerned that she might be pregnant. Nice objectification shot of her in the tub…definitely sexualizing her… And then there are morning doves in her apartment, and she is pulled under water by an unseen force, and has yet to notice the stigmata on her wrists. Flashes to images of being nailed to the cross, her wrists bleed in the water.

She sits upright in ER, screams, then falls back, has a mild cardiac arrest, then comes to confused and without memory of what happened. Doctors think it was a suicide attempt, but Paige says she didn’t do it. Doctor notices it only bleeds when she touches it.

Kiernan’s issue with faith is that he is sent to disprove miracles. Not good for one’s faith to disprove the things the faith is built on.

And of course he is a Jesuit — gotta bring in that link to The Exorcist.

A lot on the conspiracy of the Church, on how the Church withholds information, keeps secrets, controls truth.

What is it with the pregnancy, baby angle? Is it a way to call into question Paige’s femininity, her life choices, to show her the path she should be walking?

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Now she is on a subway with two nuns and a priest — gotta be a joke in there somewhere…She approaches the priest, asks for Kiernan, and says no one can help her now that she is fucked. She rips off a nun’s cross and the train goes crazy on the tracks, throwing people all over the place. Paige suffers the lashes as the next stigmata, as the priest watches. Then things go soft white light and quiet as the lashes continue and end. Throughout the movie, we are watching Paige’s body as an object visited with either sexual pleasure or physical pain — but always as an object, as having things done to it, with no real agency. Only Kiernan has agency, and is thus the true subject of the film.

Doctors at hospital run a pregnancy test — she is not pregnant, but unsure if she was, because for some reasons the doctors do not know. Intercutting between her getting medical tests and Kiernan performing mass. They diagnose her with epilepsy — blunt trauma to the head, and apparently she is hearing voices, so those voices we heard on the sound track were diegetic. Priest from the train tries to talk to them about the stigmata, and apparently reports it to the Vatican, so Kiernan is sent there.

Vatican saying they do not have records for the parish in Brazil — which indicates they are hiding something, that whole conspiracy thing — which is furthered by the Vatican sending Kiernan on a job he doesn’t understand as being important.

ha ha She swears “God damned church” when Kiernan walks in. And she is flirting with Kiernan — see that is how far fallen this woman has gone. But she apparently remembers asking for him on the train, as she says she was expecting him. She admits she does not believe in God. Which means she cannot be getting the stigmata, because only deeply religious people can get them. It’s seen as a spiritual battle, where the person’s battle with evil manifests on their body. A self-confessed atheist cannot exhibit the wounds of Christ, as it would be a contradiction. The Church regards stigmata as a gift from God. Also she produces something she wrote in Italian without knowing what it says.

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Research montage: reading into epilepsy and stigmata. Because we need a recap of what we just heard people say moments before. And back to the drinking and partying and rock-n-roll, as the music says things are going to Hell.
Paige rails against God — says scarier to believe in God than not, because if not God doing this to her, than who. And immediately after that she gets the next stigmata, the crown of thorns — intercut with showing the actual crown of thorns, leaving no other possible alternative for what is happening to her. Which is different than in other exorcism cinema, where you are not shown the demon, and the other alternative is plausible in the narrative of the film. Here, by showing the wounds of Christ overlapped on Paige, the film is not allowing us to have this alternative explanation.

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Kiernan finds her as this is going on, and odd things happen, like telekinesis affecting the buildings. And then he finds her scratching words into a car, having oddly colored eyes, and speaking in tongues. But instead of bringing her to a hospital, he brings her to a church.

Kiernan’s friend at the Vatican recognizes the language she spoke, says it is not gibberish. It’s a form of Aramaic, the dialect used around time of Jesus. So…maybe she is possessed by Jesus?

There she goes again, writing more and speaking more in that dead Aramaic. Knowing the ending, it spoils the suspense of what she is doing — but it does align with other possession movies, the idea of speaking/writing in tongues that the person would not otherwise know if not for the possession, indicating that the person is inhabited by a foreign spirit — which she seems to indicate when Kiernan asks who she is and she responds with a male voice that the messenger is not important. She even moves and walks like an old man. And her face appears wrinkled and dried until water splashes on it.

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The imagery of the dove is important in this movie — it was in the Brazil church, it was in her apartment when the possession started, and it shows up in what she writes. And she even plays with them at her window.

Walking down the street, she wears yellow and red and a large heart on her chest, while surrounded by people in muted colors, grays, browns, blacks.

At a day out at the flower shop with Byrne, the next stigmata occurs, as the nails are pounded into the feet. Interesting how it occurs after she is again kinda flirting with the priest. It’s almost like the stigmata are punishing her for her sexuality.

Priest says that the nearer people get to God, the more open they are to temptation, to demons, as they battle their own inner demons.

Kiernan sends the pictures of the writings to his friend, who says the writings are a problem, that Kiernan should drop all of this. There is thought that this is the gospel of Jesus in his own words, which apparently makes this gospel dangerous. Again hinting at a conspiracy, a danger.

A mirror from the room shows an old man who was not in the room when she was writing the words on the wall. Again, mirror as able to show inner self, show the possession, which was seen in The Last Exorcism Part 2 for example.

The friend at the Vatican calls another priest, saying the Gospel of Jesus has been found.

And again Paige hits on the priest, while not possessed — because that is what women do, apparently. Or is she possessed, seeing as the water droplet when up and not down, indicating supernatural activity as it did at other times. She tries to kiss him, seduce him, as have seen in demonic possession.

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And then the demonic voice, male voice comes out and interchanged with her own — showing super strength, mocking his faith and his Church as she attacks him. She puts a knife to him, asking how his faith is these days in his own voice, saying this is what you call God as she slices her wrists and reopens the stigmata, and then sets the bed she was lying on flying while she hovers in the air and floats up in white light, to be turned over as if on a cross. Then she cries blood like the statue. And he lifts her down from this “cross”.

But again no taking her to the hospital. He just bandages her, puts her to bed, and then lies down next to her to comfort her.

Then Cardinal Houseman shows up to take over the examination, being inquisitive and demanding, and accusing Kiernan of obfuscating the investigation. Houseman says he is no longer helping the girl. But Kiernan wants to know why he is taking over, what his interest is — again, hinting at conspiracy.

Kiernan’s friend’s friend meets Kiernan and tells about the conspiracy of the Church hiding their work on the translation of the Gospel of Jesus. The other man doing the translation was the Brazil priest, whose rosary Paige now has. These priests were actually excommunicated because of their work. Their translation was seen as dangerous because the true church of Jesus is not an institution, and there would be no need for churches and priests — that the kingdom of God is inside people and in nature and not in buildings or institutions. If that Gospel got out, it would undermine the Church’s power. The patriarchy is in danger.

Paige sleeps with the dead priest’s rosary, which is taken from her by Houseman’s group, and they being to pray over her, performing an exorcism, compelling the spirit that is possessing her to leave her body. She speaks in the old priest’s voice, yelling at them for not seeing the truth. She speaks out against them, when Houseman says he is the Church, she says in tongue that he is the true enemy of the Church. All the while Houseman says he wants to save this woman, beseeching the Lord to save her, and yet he is strangling her. He says “you will not destroy my Church.” Everyone had been forced out by Houseman, and Kiernan shows up just in time to save her.

Kiernan attacks Houseman, saying he lied, that he was trying to silence her, but Houseman still says he will not allow Kiernan to destroy the church. Kiernan goes back in the room where Paige is, and fire wreathes the room. He seeks to be the messenger, but she speaks back to him in his own voice, saying that a messenger has to believe, as to have faith, while he has only doubt. So he proves himself by walking through the fire. And she speaks softly in her own voice, reciting the Gospel of Jesus.

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He calls upon the dead priest to release the woman, praying over her, while we see the stigmata again. He blesses the old man’s soul, beseeches him to go in peace — she again is crying out in pain, as if the stigmata are all happening again. But the exorcism works, as the spirit is removed.

They leave the church, her shrouded in a white bed sheet, and sit in nature. And they finally kiss — because if there is no Church, as the Gospel of Jesus says, then there is no need for the rules of the Church, such as the rule for celibacy.

So she kissed him, kinda said “no” as if realizing she shouldn’t and gets the dove to land on her. She looks around at the nature of the park and seems at peace, still holding the rosary. And now she is Francis of Assisi, that’s good, in how she engages with animals. And then she just wanders off…

Kiernan goes back to the bleeding statue in Brazil and finds the original Gospel of Jesus, hidden and translated. At the end we get some historical information about a gospel that was discovered in the 1940s, said to be the closet to recording the real words of Jesus, and one that the Church refuses to recognize and considers to be heretical. So the movie tries to base what happened on a real story.

Perhaps of all the exorcism cinema, this movie most overtly shows the danger of women to the Church, in that her possession could literally destroy the entire patriarchal institution by undermining their authority for maintaining the Lord’s presence on Earth. So the Church, as embodied by the conspiratorial Houseman, seeks to not only silence her through exorcism, but also through her death. Paige’s character could be seen as having been on the wrong path, of sex, partying, out of wedlock pregnancy, and her possession by the dead priest gives her life meaning, gives her power to be a part of something more. This power, however, threatened the Church, and she had to be silenced when it was realized just how much of a threat she was.

In the alternate ending: still the bed sheet, being outside, with the kiss, and we see the fifth stigmata, the spear in the side, and she dies in his arms. So after the possession she still gets the stigmata – indicating that she became holy because of this activity – oh, but then we see her spirit with the dove…so, yeah, she must be holy, as she is also linked to Jesus, Assisi and the Virgin Mary.

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