| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
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,
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
- its 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 dont 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