Kevin Smith’s Dogma is at once irreverent and respectful, daffy and devout. It’s the cinematic equivalent of paging through a religious textbook and coloring in Apostles’ teeth in the picture of the Last Supper, drawing Jesus a pair of glasses – while simultaneously highlighting the important and significant passages. It opens with one of the funniest disclaimers in recent film memory and takes off on a riotous ride from there.
Controversy has dogged this film since Catholic groups learned of its allegedly disrespectful topic and tone. Harvey and Bob Weinstein originally produced it for Miramax, their Disney subsidiary. After threats from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, they then purchased it from Disney for $12 million to spare the parent company from controversy and eventually distributed it via the independent Lions Gate Films.
Taken at a literal level, there’s much potential for offense here. Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck) are two fallen angels banished from heaven to a place much worse than hell -Wisconsin. Their opportunity for redemption arrives in the person of Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), who offers plenary indulgence – absolution from all sin – to anyone who walks through the doors of his rededicated New Jersey church. Glick is the huckster for "Catholicism WOW", a campaign featuring a revamped "Buddy Jesus" – no more messy crucifixion, he’s flashing a hearty grin and a big thumbs-up. While Loki and Bartleby head for their salvation in the Garden State, God’s minion, Metatron (Alan Rickman), recruits a wavering and discouraged Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) to stop them. For if Loki and Bartleby are allowed back into heaven, God would be proven fallible – and all creation would cease to exist. Bethany’s a paradox – she works in an Illinois abortion clinic yet still tithes.
Many more participants enter the fray: the forgotten 13th Apostle Rufus (Chris Rock), left out of the Bible "because it was written by white guys," the reluctant Prophets, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and director Smith himself), and a stripper/muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek), who claims credit for inspiring the Top 20 box-office films of all time – except for Home Alone. "Somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that." The forces of evil are led by the demon Azreal (Jason Lee) who employs a trinity of rollerblading henchmen. Alanis Morissette plays God as a winsome and goofy waif who comes to earth in human form mostly so she can play skee-ball.
But for all the potshots the film takes at strict Catholic doctrines and the foibles of the humans that blindly follow them, it also contains a strong and clear message praising the value of faith and ideas, and presents Catholic theology seriously and fairly literally. It consistently hammers home that it’s not the rules that make a religion meaningful, even though it’s the struggles over the administrivia of our faiths that takes precedence far too often.
Smith’s previous films (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy) tended more towards verbal pyrotechnics than visual imagery, and the same is true here. The story is presented as a series of loosely linked episodes heavy with significant pronouncements and some finely-crafted speeches, alternated with Mack Sennet-style madcap comedy and plenty of sex and poop jokes – there’s even a character made entirely of fecal matter.
Linda Fiorentino brings just the right mix of sly determination and weary resignation to her role as Bethany, and Alan Rickman’s Metatron is a model of wry bemusement, laughing at and commiserating with the fools we mortals be. The rest of the characters are drawn fairly broadly, serving mostly as conduits for Smith’s dense and rapid-fire dialog.
This is not a neatly wrapped package – it’s a noisy, messy, outrageous rampage most of the time. But enough sticks to the wall with sufficient frequency to recommend it.
Those not raised in the Catholic faith may want to bring along someone who was, to explain some of the film’s theological references – ask them to bring their Catechism. And don’t try to sneak out before the end. Sister Beata is lurking in the hallway with her ruler, itching to give you a rap across the knuckles. She’s sure to include a Sunday school quiz question covering the last five minutes.
– Bob Aulert