Monday, 5 February 2007

The Euro-American Cult of the Saints and Celtic Warriors on Film

For this post I'm wondering if you've seen the film Stigmata (1999). Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce plays the Cardinal Daniel Houseman. Stigmata is an intensely grotesque distortion of the female protagonist’s psyche and body. Played by Patricia Arquette, the unwilling heroine becomes the 'channeler' for a martyred male priest. There is a parallel tale of romance where the female is juxtaposed between good priest and bad church, in a thrilling horror joy ride that has a slashy tinge of Film-Noir-meets-Latin-Magical-Realism, about it. Great filmmaking, great storytelling; fuzzy theology, but who cares?

Make no mistake -- Mel Gibson was stealing all his best (and most gruesome) ideas from this bloody horror flick. But Stigmata bears this cross better than Mel, with conspiracy-theory panache. Dublin born Gabriel Byrne is a sexy 'good' priest named Father Andrew Kiernan. This heroic Irish priest character recurs in The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and in Song for a Raggy Boy (2003). Previously this heroic priest idea is invented by Welshman Ceri Sherlock in his Branwen (1994), whose priest is the wize wizard who councils the troubled (and male grotesque) Welsh chapel minister. Of course, Tornatore openly (but gently) mocks the priest in Nuova cinema Paradiso (1988), as Fellini parodied this priest paragon as a conflicted, carnivalesque confidant/hierophant in 8 1/2 (1963).



Mark Leslie Woods said...

Only Pedro Almodóvar could realize the latent sexual volativity of priests, as seen in La Mala Educacion (2004). Of course, Pedro takes the grotesque quotient up several notches by making his shape-shifting protagonist as 1) actor/director 2) transvestite 3) fraternal stand-in for suicidal heroin-addicted heroine and 4) machismo Latin (but gay) sex object. Talk about intricate marginalizations, a la absurd!

Stigmata is a film, filled with grotesquely brutal transpositions of the modern female with bloody crucifixions and other bizarre phenomena. The heroine must decipher the mysteries of Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of Thomas, to be precise), hidden in the bowels of the Vatican Library, as the Cardinal and the Roman Catholic male-dominated power structure form a Kafkaesque monolith of 'male grotesque' opposition.

The audience's background knowledge of basic Christian precepts and a general knowledge of the history of the struggles of so-called 'Heretics' against the Church's centuries of tyranny, as portrayed in (Umberto Eco's) Name of the Rose (1986), and most recently expoited in The Da Vinci Code (2006, not only provides a richly (melo)dramatic leitmotif of sadomasochistic draconica for the audience to uncover, but also presupposes the enduring narrative impact, provided by characters and themes bled from the late Roman 'Cult of the Saints'.

[For a good discussion of this historical cult of late Pagan/early Christian 'celebrity' see Brown, P. R. L. (1981). The Cult of the Saints. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press. ]

Irish filmmaker Martin Duffy places that character from the 'Dark Ages' 'Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae' or "Lives of the Saints' canon (which had Welsh and Scottish analogs), Saint Patrick, in a matter-of-fact treatment of Eire's patron, in the TV film St. Patrick: The Irish Legend (2000). Duffy sees the human-sacrificing Druids as monstrous, and sees the half Roman/half Welsh saviour of post-serpentine Ireland as a blithely banal hero. This reversed rendering, painting Ireland's patron with such a nonchalant brush, could be called a delicious grotesquerie, in itself.

Mark Leslie Woods said...

I also wanted to point out that, whether it's an Irish Catholic gulag, or the grey drudgery of curmudgeonly Welsh Nonconformist Congregational Chapel deacons and their busy-body, anorexic wives, the Spanish Inquisition can barely compete with the milieu of Celtic religious extremism for dramatic potential and political statement.

We can't have Stigmata without the Welsh Cardinal and the Irish priest, you see . . .