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Blame Mom. If she hadn't gone to Brazil and sent her hairdresser daughter Frankie that souvenir rosary ("oh, look, a necklace," says Frankie), everything would have been fine. How did her mother know the bloodstained rosary used to belong to Father Alameida, the biblical scholar whose tiny South American church suddenly boasted a statue of Mary that shed tears of blood?

Things, though, are not so fine with Frankie the minute that rosary enters her apartment. The previous night, she had been a free and easy club chick with a sleep-in boyfriend. Now, in her bathtub, her wrists start bleeding profusely for no good reason -- not suicidal slashes, either, but puncture wounds ("through and through," as medics sometimes call them).

Soon it's raining blood inside her little apartment. She hears voices when there's no one there. She sees Madonnas in rain slickers on the street. She's scourged by phantoms on the subway.

Wait. There's more. A priest flies all the way in from the Vatican to tell her she's exhibiting "stigmata," the five wounds of Christ where the nails, lance and crown of thorns pierced his flesh. How can that be, everyone wonders. Stigmatics, says hunky Father Kiernan, are those whose beliefs are passionate, all-encompassing. Frankie doesn't even believe in God. In fact, she snarls, "if there's a God, he's ruining my life."

Something is ruining her life, that's certain. On the dance floor of her favorite club, her forehead suddenly sprouts crown-of-thorns wounds. Her eyes turn tiger orange and she starts writing lengthy passages in ancient Aramaic on automobile hoods and apartment walls. Not bad for a girl who considers herself lucky to have gone through beauty school.

There's still more. She ages 60 years in a minute and then back again. She lusts for her doting Father, despite his turnaround collar. Her voice tumbles down a few octaves and she develops the strength of 10.

Her stigmata begin multiplying bloodily -- wounds show up on her feet. No stigmatic, says Father Kiernan, has ever exhibited all five wounds. St. Francis of Assisi, the first stigmatic, exhibited only two, he says. She's on her way to a full house.

Right about here, you are, no doubt, shouting, "Aha!" Just a pre-millennial ripoff of "The Exorcist," you say -- Linda Blair, pea-soup projectile regurgitation, all that. Patricia Arquette is the updated sufferer (and a few years older than Blair, of course) and Gabriel Byrne is in the Jason Miller role of pastoral beefcake.

Then again, maybe not. Theology is hardly my strong point, but if this isn't Hollywood's first major act of big-budget heresy, I'm Linda Blair's long-lost brother.

Here's why: All of this -- the whole plot -- turns on the existence of a fifth Gospel that supplements Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with the Gospel supposedly, of Christ himself in his own words, from his own language. And his first words, according to this movie, are that "the Kingdom of God is within you." And that all religious monuments and mansions (i.e. the Church, any church) are impediments.

Just to make sure you get the point, the movie's villain is the highest visible member of the Vatican hierarchy (played by Jonathan Pryce). He is, rather often, prepared to kill for the cause.

We should have known where it was going when, in its opening seconds, someone saying a Hail Mary was savagely drowned out by music from Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.

There have, up to now, been a few voices from conservative church organizations objecting strongly to this film. Given what the film actually seems to be saying, I'm not at all sure they've missed the point.

Let me put it this way: Just when I started dismissing this movie as a silly, derivative mess, I started bolting upright, gaping at the screen and wondering to myself, "Are they really saying that?"

I think they are. And when Kevin Smith's already-controversial "Dogma" opens later in the year, the last year before the millennium could turn out to be the toughest one at the movies that the Catholic Church has suffered since movies began.

I wouldn't claim to a living soul that "Stigmata" is a good movie. It's horror junk, nothing more. But I'll tell you this -- I was never bored. And when I realized the difficult territory it was bulling its way into, I was riveted.

Rating: ***
Patricia Arquette exhibits the signs of Christ's wounds. The Vatican sends Gabriel Byme to investigate while Jonathan Pryce glowers.
Written by Rick Ramage and Tom Lazarus. Directed by Rupert Wainwright.
Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

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