Dogma (1999)

D: Kevin Smith
S: Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck

For some, the fact that Dogma is to Chasing Amy what Mallrats was to Clerks will sound alarm bells. For those who have enjoyed each of writer/director Kevin Smith's four films to date in their own way, it won't really matter. Anyone who doesn't understand any of what I've just said has an interesting viewing experience ahead of them which they may or may not enjoy depending on their taste barometer and their sense of humour. Dogma is a characteristically inventive bit of writing and direction from Kevin Smith, who has been one of the most singular voices of the 1990s in independent American cinema. Armed with a uniquely verbal approach to moviemaking and an off-beat sense of humour informed by a postmodern world of comic books and movie lore, Smith has consistently turned out distinctive films which tend to elicit love/hate responses from audiences. Dogma hit the headlines months before its eventual release when some Christian fundamentalist groups allegedly voiced their opposition to what was apparently dubbed sacrilegious material. Whether the invention of publicists or actual fact, this selling point made the film Smith's first cause celebre, though, as usual, the controversy was much ado about very little.

Dogma is a satirical fantasy set in such a patently comic book universe that its perceived sacrileges are no more than gentle gags at the expense of the Catholic Church which should provoke little more than a titter of recognition in anyone to whom their faith is important and unshakable. The film centres on the chaos which ensues on earth when two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) seek to exploit a little known loophole in Catholic dogma which will allow them to re-enter heaven and thus prove that God is fallible. When loony Cardinal George Carlin opens the movie with an ad campaign to modernise the Catholic Church by unveiling a statue of a grinning, winking Jesus Christ, the viewer knows that though surreal in some part, Smith is no Luis Buñuel, and this poking of fun at the belief structure of Catholicism is far from serious or subversive (perhaps, to a certain extent, to its cost). Linda Fiorentino plays a normal young Catholic woman working in an abortion clinic (irony! irony!) who discovers she has a hithertofore unsuspected destiny as the only human being who can prevent the end of the universe by stopping the angels from crossing the threshold of a Church granting plenary indulgences to all who enter (this is the loophole which will allow the angels back into heaven, you see). She is assisted in her quest by a variety of heavenly helpers including the 13th Apostle (Chris Rock), written out of the Bible because he's black, two prophets (Smith regulars Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself)), the Metatron, voice of God (Alan Rickman), Serendipity the Muse (Salma Hayek), and, eventually, God herself (Alanis Morrisette). Ranged against her are the forces of evil led by demon Jason Lee and some miscellaneous minions including an excremental demon (yes, excremental) which you'll either find hilarious or revolting (or both), and acts as a kind of litmus test for the whole of the film and Smith's sense of humour. Clerks co-stars Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran have brief cameos, as do producer Scott Mosier, Bud Cort (!) and Janeane Garofalo, adding to the in-jokey, class-reunionish feel of the whole thing.

First and foremost, Dogma is not a serious film. The humour, though relatively well-founded in popular theology, is broad and surreal. Its satirical jibes at organised religion are really more an opportunity for table-talk ponderable than an attempt to question or explore the issues they seem to raise. Though there is something of a thematic concern with the power and value of faith, this takes second place to plenty of verbal face-slapping and confrontational irony which provides the various actors with picaresque moments in which each gets to ply their trade and steal the screen for a little while. The first appearance of Affleck and Damon is priceless, as Damon, an angel, remember, convinces a Catholic nun that all religion is an illusionistic conspiracy, after which the rest of the film sounds much the same note throughout. As such, there is little variety to its sacrilege, if sacrilege it is. It is certainly no The Milky Way, and lacking Buñuel's razor-edged bitterness, Smith's film has less meat than it needs to make its points subtly disturbing, or even disconcerting. The viewer quickly finds that the easiest way to watch the film is simply to enjoy the execution, and Smith does not disappoint with a nice variety of entertaining moments. The narrative is overstretched however, and the film runs much longer than the material deserves in itself. Though it doesn't become tiresome, it will try the patience of those for whom it is barely tolerable from the outset, and may indeed provoke hostility before it has run its course. But there's always another amusing twist around the corner, down to the casting of Morrisette as God, who cannot speak lest her voice destroy those who hear it.

On the whole Dogma is entertaining, funny, and well put together. It is a little loose and undisciplined, and surprisingly gory in places, but if you can tune in to its particular vibe, it will provide a typically singular evening's viewing. It is unfortunate that it isn't just a tad more effective as a religious satire and that events transpire on such a finally superficial level, but it is still worth seeing and, like The Milky Way or Viridiana, should prove more enjoyable for those with a Catholic background who know the difference between faith and dogma.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.