Friday November 12, 1999
Only someone serious about religion in general and Catholicism in particular could have made "Dogma," but those expecting a modern version of "The Song of Bernadette" or "King of Kings" are going to find themselves dazed and confused.
For though the writer-director of this film is a practicing Catholic with a monk's fascination with concepts like transubstantiation, plenary indulgences and choirs of angels, Kevin Smith is also the man who brought the racy and irreverent "Clerks," "Mallrats" and "Chasing Amy" into the world. "Dogma" may be a believer's film, but that doesn't mean it's in any way conservative or conventional.
Instead, "Dogma" is a raucous, profane but surprisingly endearing piece of work, a funny and lively film of ideas that combines a breezy save-the-world fantasy with Smith's trademark adolescent sense of humor and a sincere exploration of questions of faith. If you can imagine intense doses of theology and religious doctrine alternating with juvenile sex jokes and a monster that emerges from a toilet, you've got "Dogma" pegged.
Not only does "Dogma" match the unmixable in terms of story, it does the same thing with its eclectic cast. To find polished British actor Alan Rickman, Smith's childhood buddy and alter ego Jason Mewes, comic tornado Chris Rock, cult items George Carlin and Bud Cort, heartthrobs Matt Damon and Ben Affleck--not to mention singer Alanis Morissette as God--together in one film is close to a unique experience.
What does link "Dogma" to much more mannerly religious vehicles is that it takes belief in God as a given. An early scene has Loki (Damon), one of a pair of renegade angels, ragging on his pal Bartleby (Affleck) for trying to talk a nun out of her religion. "You know for a fact there is a God, you've been in her presence," he says, and both Bartleby and the film agree that it's so.
Thrown out of heaven eons ago, Loki and Bartleby have been stuck in Wisconsin for almost all of recorded time. But now news comes to them that if they arrive at a certain church in Red Bank, N.J., on the day of its rededication, they'll be granted plenary indulgences and, through a loophole in Catholic dogma, they'll be able to get back into heaven.
The rededication and the indulgences are the idea of the forward-thinking Cardinal Glick (Carlin), whose mission it is to bring his religion up to date. "Christ didn't come to Earth to give us the willies," he says, announcing that the old gloomy image of the crucifixion will be replaced by statues of a smiling Jesus giving the thumbs-up sign, a.k.a. "the Buddy Christ."
What the cardinal doesn't know is that if Loki and Bartleby are granted those indulgences, that will, in effect, prove God wrong and fallible and, thus, undo reality and reduce existence to nothingness. Not a good idea, top angels agree, and so the high-ranking Seraphim Metatron, the Voice of God (Rickman), is dispatched in a cloud of fire to recruit Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a conflicted Catholic who works in an abortion clinic, to lead a holy crusade to stop Loki and Bartleby.
A modern, skeptical woman, Bethany douses the flaming messenger with a fire extinguisher and is noticeably suspicious about her mission. What she doesn't know is that she's going to get help from the most ragtag bunch of spiritual pranksters.
These include a pair of prophets, talkative Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself); Rufus, the hitherto unknown Thirteenth Apostle (Rock) who's irked at being left out of the Bible; and a muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek) currently working as a stripper. Fighting on the other side are a slick demon named Azrael (Jason Lee), a trio of skating hit boys and a foul-smelling monster called Golgothan.
Complicated as this sounds, it doesn't capture a lot of the wackier elements in this densely plotted, off-the-wall film, everything from angels offering proof that they're sexually neutral to a bloody attack by Loki and Bartleby on the Mooby Corp., an empire based on an animated duck the way Disney's is based on a mouse.
And in between the bad jokes about bodily functions and sexual availability, "Dogma" offers a fair number of unexpectedly thoughtful moments. "I have issues with anyone who treats God as a burden, not a blessing," one character says. And then there is the notion that the world would be better off if there were more ideas than beliefs, because ideas can be changed if necessary.
While notions like God as a woman ("The whole book is gender-biased" is "Dogma's" verdict on the Bible) are certain to give religious conservatives pause, "Dogma's" pee-wee sense of humor will have their more liberal brethren occasionally tearing their hair out as well.
A film that knows that everything it does isn't going to work, "Dogma" is rescued again and again by its refreshing high energy level and the quirky preoccupations of its quick-witted, unabashed writer-director. To say no one but Kevin Smith could have made this film is, finally, to have said it all.
Dogma, 1999. R, for strong language, including sex-related dialogue, violence, crude humor and some drug content. A View Askew production, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Kevin Smith. Producer Scott Mosier. Screenplay Kevin Smith. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Editors Kevin Smith & Scott Mosier. Costumes Abigail Murray. Music Howard Shore. Production design Robert "Ratface" Holtzman. Art director Elise G. Viola. Set decorator Diana Stoughton. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. Ben Affleck as Bartleby. Matt Damon as Loki. Linda Fiorentino as Bethany. Salma Hayek as Serendipity. Jason Lee as Azrael. Alan Rickman as Metatron. Chris Rock as Rufus.