Stigmata (Fantagraphics)

A young man’s wounds lead him on the path to redemption in this Italian graphic novel, the basis for the Spanish film Estigmas. 


190 pgs., B&W; $19.99
(W: Claudio Piersanti; A: Lorenzo Mattotti)
One of my favorite films from the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival was the Spanish film Stigmata (Estigmas) directed by Adán Aliaga. Shot in high-contrast black and white on practically no budget (1800 Euros if you can trust the imdb) and starring a non-actor (Spanish shot-put champion Manuel Martinez), it takes a look at the mysteries of faith and redemption within the context of Catholicism, although appreciation of the film does not require that you subscribe to this, or any, religious faith. It’s an unusual film and not the kind of thing destined for wide release in the U.S. but has enjoyed some success on the festival circuit (winning director Aliaga an award at the 2009 Valladolid International Film Festival). Anyway, it’s definitely worth your time if you’re interested in films outside the multiplex mold so keep a watch should it become available on DVD in the future.
All that is preface to the main subject of this review, which is the source material for Stigmata the film: Stigmata the graphic novel, written by Claudio Piersanti and drawn by Lorenzo Mattotti. Piersanti is a screenwriter (working mainly in Italy, he’s scripted 11 movies) while Mattotti’s name should already be familiar to connoisseurs of graphic novels. Among his works translated into English: Fires (1988), Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (2003; winner of an Eisner award) and The Raven (forthcoming, 2011) with text by Lou Reed of Velvet Underground fame. If you’re a fan of upscale magazines, you may also have seen his work in, among others, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Le Monde and The New Yorker. Stigmata was published in Italy in 1998 (as Stigmate) but has just been released in English this year by Fantagraphics and, like the film of the same name, is definitely worth a look if you’re interested in something different.
Stigmata are wounds or marks on the body at locations corresponding with those suffered by the crucified Jesus, most commonly in the hands and feet and in the side. Saint Francis of Assisi is probably the most famous stigmatic in history, but ordinary people have also developed signs interpreted as stigmata. Usually, however, such people are devoutly religious, a description which does not apply to Bruno, the central character in Stigmata. Instead, he’s an orphan and a loner existing on the fringes of life, a giant of a man given to excess drinking and who barely gets by working a survival job in a cafe. So Bruno is as surprised as anyone when he wakes up one day bleeding from the palms, and medical science has no explanation beyond a suspicion that the wounds are due to self-injury.
Be that as it may, the wounds definitely exist and refuse to heal. Bruno loses his job after customers complain about blood on their glasses and Bruno sets out on a journey to join his uncle (apparently his only living relative) who works in a carnival. He starts doing odd jobs for the carnival and graduates to becoming an act—"The House of Blessings"—and many people believe his stigmata have real healing powers. Bruno finds himself part of a community for the first time in his life and marries a fellow carnival worker, but just as he achieves this happiness his stigmata heal. Re-opening them with a knife allows him to continue to work, but the wounds which once brought him good luck now bring only misfortune, and after several heartbreaking incidents he finds himself alone and on the road once again.
In American popular culture one road trip is usually sufficient to solve a character’s issues and set them on the right path, but it’s not so easy for Bruno. I won’t say more because there’s a surprise at the end which shouldn’t be spoiled, but if you are of a philosophical bent it’s definitely worth spending a few hours following Bruno’s vicarious journeys. In addition, I can safely say that this graphic novel offers a different experience (in a good way) from any I have read before.
Lorenzo Mattotti’s line-based art is a perfect expression of the mystical, sometimes demonic aspects of this tale. Instead of areas of solid black, he uses dense cross-hatching to create dark areas within frames full of swirling lines which suggest both Bruno’s unsettled state of mind and also the very fluidity of experience. Scenes and characters appear and disappear out of these dense networks as if from a dense fog, and it all creates a sense that perhaps you don’t entirely know what is going on at any time or even what constitutes reality. As Hamlet said to his more rational-minded friend Horatio, after a visit from his father’s ghost:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
You can see a preview of Stigmata on the Fantagraphics website and see more of Lorenzo Mattotti’s work on his web site | Sarah Boslaugh

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