It’s been a long time since I watched Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” without the outrageous commentary track, but I have a feeling, watching it again, that this film is responsible for a lot of my thinking about organized religion at this point of my life. That may sound sad, but the fact is, Smith nails the basic truth about organized religion– it is a human construct, and as such, it is inherently flawed. “Dogma” is more than a vulgar comedy from the director of “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” it’s an on-point indictment of the fundamentalist approach to faith and spirituality. That’s it’s hilarious to boot is just icing on the cake.
Serendipity (Selma Hayek): “When are you people going to learn? It’s not about who’s right or wrong. No denomination’s nailed it yet, because they’re all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn’t matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains gotta to wake up.”
Rufus (Chris Rock): “He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.”
Bethany (Linda Fiorentino): “Having beliefs isn’t good?”
Rufus: “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…”
The quotes above get to the heart of the matter of Smith’s screenplay, which is one of the most precise, intelligent pieces of religious screenwriting in recent memory. Yes, it has vicious shit demons trying to kill our heroes and a massacre at a board of directors meeting for a children’s character named Mooby, but there’s more thoughtful consideration of the nature of theology than in most serious films on the subject. That Mooby massacre is the work of Bartleby and Loki, two fallen angels (played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, both doing terrific work) who are on their way to New Jersey to try and get back into heaven, and decided to take out some of God’s competition, since Mooby is an idol that takes attention away from God (“no other Gods before Me”). And the shit demon is a manifestation of the waste people crucified on Golgotha excreted while on the cross– nasty business. There are more solemn moments, though, for those of who are inclined to look at things that way, like when Bethany (who is charged with stopping Bartleby and Loki) is told of her family tree. In those moments, Rufus and Metatron (the voice of God, played by the peerless Alan Rickman) take a more somber, emotional tone that the actors play perfectly, and Smith writes with a heartfelt voice that we don’t always associate with him. It’s a big moment for Bethany, a Catholic who lost her faith after finding out she couldn’t get pregnant, to find out she’s a distant relation to Christ, but it’s a hard truth she has to accept quickly. Rufus is the deliverer of the news, but it’s Metatron who has to calm her down, like he had to Jesus back in the day when God’s son found out who he was supposed to be. For the faithful, “Dogma” is filled with heresy and blasphemous ideas, but there’s a core idea of finding our true identity, and what we’re intended to be on Earth for, that is poignant and compelling. Sometimes, it’s what the most faithful find most offensive that makes the most profound statements on the subject at hand, and so it is with “Dogma.”
I’ve brought up aspects of the story thus far, but time for a summary. As has been mentioned, Bartleby and Loki are angels who were once cast out of heaven by God, and have spent their time on Earth in exile in Wisconsin. While Loki has tried to make the most of his time by messing with religious people about their beliefs (when we first see him, he is shattering a nun’s faith with a dissection of Lewis Carroll), Bartleby has grown bitter and anxious for a way home. That way may have presented itself when someone sends him a news article about a Catholic church in New Jersey that is rededicating itself for to celebrate it’s centennial. Part of that is offering the ritual of plenary indulgence to Catholics: by passing through the archways, their sins are forgiven (regardless of how heinous), thus paving their way into heaven. The angels are naturally excited about this, although they’ll have to clips their wings and become human to have it count. This, naturally, causes waves in both heaven and hell; above because it would go against God’s decree (and God is infallible), and below because they would succeed in a way Satan never has. That’s where Bethany comes in. After being tasked with stopping them by Metatron, Bethany gets sucked even further into this battle of wills when a couple of stoners (Jay and Silent Bob, played, as always, by Jason Mewes and Smith) saves her from hockey-playing triplets trying to kill her; a 13th apostle (Rock’s Rufus) falls from the sky, and they run into a muse (Hayek’s Serendipity) in a nearby strip club. Shit gets real fast for Bethany, and the odds feel stacked against them. In the immortal words of Jay, “the whole fucking world is against us, dude.”
“Dogma” hit the scene under a mountain of controversy when it first played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, and if you read the previous paragraphs, it’s easy to see why– the faithful hate it when someone presents a different way of seeing religion, especially if it’s taking swipes at it. The furor led to Miramax (which produced the film) being forced to sell the film to Lionsgate after their corporate owners of the time (Disney) got cold feet, and death threats came about. By the time the film hit theatres in November, though, the furor died down, and it became a solid hit for Smith, one of the highest grossing films of his career. I think part of that comes from the fact that Smith, who was raised Catholic, is someone who takes the message of his faith seriously, but found a ballsy and very funny way of presenting it to audiences without being sanctimonious about it. His target is the church, and those who found his film blasphemous, not God or faith. If man’s desire for a chance at salvation can inadvertently pave the way to the end of all things, are we really doing things right in the way we worship God? God may not make mistakes, but man does, because God gave us free will. Pesky little critter that, and a lot of times, it’s used in the stupidest way imaginable. This is where Smith’s film really kills it as a religious film– it gives us a lot of think about and consider while also giving us an entertaining and enlightening experience.
It makes sense that I’ve been defending the ways “Dogma” handles it’s subject matter rather than just looking at it in cinematic terms, because it’s the former that really makes the movie a great experience, but this is easily Smith’s best film to date all around. Working from the writer-director’s script, there’s not a false note from any of the cast, which also includes Jason Lee as Azreal (a demon who sets the whole story in motion), Janine Garofalo (as a co-worker of Bethany’s who is only in one scene, but is hysterical) and George Carlin (as Cardinal Glick, who is the head of the church celebrating its centennial). The cinematography by Robert Yeoman (who’s also worked with Wes Anderson a lot of late) is polished in a way no other Kevin Smith film had looked before. And the score, by Howard Shore, is suitably epic, but also wickedly comedic in parodying the sound of epic scores of old, and also has a classic kid’s theme in the Mooby song. He’s got a lot of his previous collaborators back, as well, a rogue’s gallery that includes producer/co-editor Scott Mosier, production designer Robert “Ratface” Holtzman, and the usual acting suspects like Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson, as well as Mewes (who is fantastic in his expanded role), Lee and Affleck, who had worked with Smith before. In terms of small-scale comedic storytelling with a personal meaning, “Chasing Amy” is still Smith’s best work, but when it comes to the whole package, “Dogma” stands head and shoulders above the rest of his films by swinging for the fences, and managing to run the bases despite everyone gunning for it.