November 14, 1999 -- Kevin Smith, also known as Silent Bob, writes and directs very funny films, but there is always a dark, brooding angst lurking among the laughs. "Dogma" is his most ambitious and most disturbing, and perhaps most thought-provoking, film to date. It isn't his funniest, but it certainly has its share of humor.
In this film, Silent Bob and his stoned buddy Jake (Jason Mewes) reprise the same roles they've played in "Clerks," "Chasing Amy" and "Mallrats." This time, however, they are on a mission to save the universe, along with Bethany (Linda Fiorentino of "Men in Black"), Rufus (Chris Rock) and a Muse, Serendipity (Salma Hayek of "The Wild Wild West").
They are chosen to stop two angels, Loki, (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck; both Damon and Affleck were in "Good Will Hunting") from entering a church in New Jersey. If they enter the church it will cause a contradiction in one of God's edicts, and, as a result, the universe will cease to exist since the only thing holding the universe together is the word of God. Bethany gets her call from Metatron, the voice of God (Alan Rickman of "Die Hard").
The movie, written by Kevin Smith, swirls around Catholic doctrine from beginning to end. In he beginning, Loki lays the "F" word on a nun during the process of persuading her to give leave the order. There is much discussion about the dreariness of Catholicism and how Catholics wear their religion like a thorny crown, proud of their suffering. Bethany attends Catholic services, but works in an abortion clinic. She has lost her faith. I suspect Smith was raised a Catholic. Otherwise, why would he be so interested in this particular denomination of Christianity?
Well, I'm not a Catholic, nor am I a theologian, so I don't know how seriously or deeply Smith has thought out the theological issues in the movie. It appears the movie tries to have it both ways, as serious theology and as a spoof of theology. Some of the theology is straightforward. Here's Religion according to "Dogma": Is there free will or not? The movie seems to lean toward free will, but there are elements of both. Is God a man or a woman, black or white? Yes. Is there a real heaven, hell, God, angels and demons? Yes. Is the Pope really infallible? The movie, while critical of the church, argues Papal edicts are valid, but at the same time tries to argue no one denomination or religion is better than any other. The movie also argues there was a lot more to the story of Christ than is told in the current version of the Bible. Is any of this relevant in today's society? The movie does not indicate one way or another.
The movie does try to tackle the issue of the great discrepancy between the wrathful, violent, jealous God of the Old Testament, as opposed to the God of love in the New Testament. It also tries to tackle the notion of an all-powerful God in relation to human suffering. Why does God let us suffer when he could make our lives so easy? Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz? Here we are, taking for granted the kind of luxury that billions of people in the world can only imagine, feeling sorry for ourselves. How terribly tragic. Yeah, its an old idea, but it's worth looking at. The movie seems to argue we are born with a purpose, although that purpose is often hard to see. This doesn't seem to be the stuff which would elicit hate mail and death threats, but it has. Some theater chains have also reportedly boycotted the film. Maybe it is because Smith chose to depict God, angels and demons as fact, rather than fantasy.
All this makes the movie sound pretty religious, well, it is and it isn't. While there are some great pithy speeches about religion spouted by the two angels, there is a great deal of violence and profanity. Blood and bodies are strewn all over the place. Some of the violence is related to religion, some is gratuitous. But there are also many very funny scenes, including God doing awkward cartwheels on a church lawn. There are lots of inside jokes for film buffs, including a spoof of Noriyuka (Pat) Morita's healing technique in "The Karate Kid." There's an excrement Golgotha demon and nasty little Stygian triplet roller hockey players. There's also some soulfulness to the movie, which makes the bitterness easier to bear.
The pacing of the film is uneven. Occassionally it seems to get stuck in a morass of dialogue before it gets going again. It is quite long. If one took the profanities out it would be shortened by half an hour. While it may well be Kevin Smith's most ambitious film, the budget is still a modest $10 million (by Hollywood standards). The special effects are not very impressive, perhaps on purpose.
Smith and Mewes are quite good. Smith, especially, is adept at doing those many silent reaction shots of his. Fiorentino is terrific as one of the world saviors in the movie, although her character isn't written very evenly. Damon and Affleck are good as the outlaw angels, with Affleck becoming downright scary at one point. Rickman does his usual superb job and Chris is Rock solid (Chris Rock was one of the stars of "Rush Hour"). Salma Hayek is pretty dead weight in the cast. I haven't seen her do an effective job since "54." Look quick for Bud Cort ("Harold and Maude") as an incarnation of God. This film rates a B.
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