Dogma (review)

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The Word of God

(Best of 1999)

The Catholic organizations that forced Disney-owned Miramax to renege on its agreement to release Kevin Smith’s new religious fantasy Dogma — and the Catholic organizations and individuals who continue to protest the film’s mere existence now that it has been released (by Lions Gate Films) — are precisely the people who need to see Dogma. They won’t, of course, fearing for their immortal souls: “Thou shalt not commit satire” and “Thou shalt not use the brain” are obviously two commandments the protesters are alone in their awareness of. And they’ll likely continue their diatribes aimed at a film the contents of which they “know” about only second- and third-hand.

That’s a shame. For while Dogma is without doubt critical of organized religions — and the Catholic Church in particular — it is also one of the most religious movies ever made, a psalm to faith imbued with a wonder and awe of God and all of God’s creation… if you believe in that kind of thing. And even if you don’t, Smith’s own deep belief (he is a practicing Catholic), overflowing from the screen, is more than enough to sweep you in and keep you enthralled for a couple hours.
Loki (Matt Damon: Saving Private Ryan, Good Will Hunting) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck: Armageddon, Shakespeare in Love) are fallen angels — banished forever to Wisconsin, the indignity! — who’ve discovered a loophole that will let them reenter the Kingdom of Heaven. It involves — for reasons too complicated to go into here — passing through the doors of a cathedral in Red Bank, New Jersey, which will absolve their sins and allow them to return home. Their sins? Loki, the last angel of death before God went all New Testament nice on us, quit before the Almighty was done dispensing wrath. And he did so at Bartleby’s insistence.

God is not happy about the boys’ plan, and so dispatches the seraphim Metatron (Alan Rickman: Michael Collins) to enlist the aid of Bethany (Linda Fiorentino: Men in Black) in stopping them. It seems Loki and Bartleby are in danger of proving God fallible by exploiting this minor, overlooked technicality that allows them to subvert the wishes of God by canceling their eternal exile. (It seems to me that the very existence of the loophole already proves God isn’t perfect — but that’s just atheistic nit-picking.) “They’ll unmake the world,” Metatron says, if they pass over that church threshold. It’ll be the end of everything, unless Bethany can stop them. Reluctant as she is to accept her “holy crusade,” she does so, and receives help in the form of the 13th apostle, Rufus (Chris Rock), angelic muse-cum-stripper Serendipity (Salma Hayek: Wild Wild West, The Faculty), and the unlikely prophets Jay (Jason Mewes: Chasing Amy) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), the stoners who act as roving commentators in all of Smith’s movies.

The story of Bethany’s quest allows Smith — who wrote and directed Dogma — to level a lot of angry and often puzzled criticism at the sorry state of organized religion and how it crushes the faith of the people to whom it supposedly ministers. And Smith’s satire works on multiple levels. With his Cardinal Glick (George Carlin — there’s affrontery in casting for you) and Glick’s campaign to lighten up the Church — called Catholicism Wow! — Smith simultaneously takes to task our media-driven culture and the scare tactics the Church uses. Glick wants to retire the crucifix — because Jesus came to help us, not scare us — and replace the symbol with the new wide-grinned, thumbs-up “Buddy Christ.” It’s Jesus as a Disney character, and yet the friendlier visage is somehow more appropriate — Jesus is supposed to be a pal, not an ogre.

Maybe Catholics need a cartoon Christ, Smith seems to suggest, because look what we do to other cartoons: We worship them, turn them into idols. Loki decides to go on a nostalgic killing spree before returning to Heaven — just something small, because “genocide is exhausting” — and chooses to go after the creators of Mooby. Star of children’s cartoons, movies, record albums, and his own fast-food chain, Mooby — a golden calf, hee hee — as Loki complains, is religion for kids, “a mockery of morality.” Smith makes us question our own morality, too, by creating in Loki a bad guy who’s way too easy to cheer on (Damon obviously had a ball with the part). His massacre of the Mooby board of directors is extremely satisfying and disturbingly hilarious.

Smith also pokes jabs at the kind of close-mindedness and willful ignorance that spawned objections to Dogma in the first place. Metatron — Rickman is grouchy perfection in the role — rants that the only things people know about their own religion they learned from Charleton Heston movies. He’s right, and Dogma‘s detractors prove the point. Much has been made of the fact, for instance, that Bethany is supposed to be a relative of Jesus — she’s a many-times great-niece — and protesters claim this is an insult to their beliefs, that Mary couldn’t have given Jesus brothers or sisters because she was a virgin forever. Yet if these people had any historical perspective on their own religion (and you won’t find this in a Heston movie) they’d know that this perpetual-virgin doctrine has no Biblical basis but is of fairly recent origin, something that fallible humans came up with. (And, as Rufus and Serendipity remind us, the Bible is of imperfect human origin, too.)

Dogma opens with a Monty Python-esque note to critics of all kinds, a warning not to pass undue judgment on a flick that, the placard tells us, is not meant to be taken seriously. (The Greek chorus of Jay and Silent Bob remind us that “movies are fuckin’ bullshit.”) This is a little disingenuous, though — as outrageous and outrageously funny as Dogma is, Smith has never been more serious a filmmaker than with this film. Moviegoers who don’t think about what Smith is trying to say will have no problem taking it all for an adolescent joke. But those who do stop to ponder his message will find Dogma harder to dismiss.

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