Unlikely Prophets

Dogma, the latest film by suburbia-focused auteur Kevin Smith (writer-director of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy), is a unique and tender homage to an all-loving and good Creator.

It is also chock full of mangled theology, extremely obscene language, and, with a couple of exceptions, some pretty crummy acting.

The horde of Smith fans who enjoy his films for their ribald expressions and accurate urban sprawl scenarios will find similar scenery and dialogue (and the reappearance of Jay and Silent Bob, the idiotic dudes whose characters are woven into every Smith film), but they also will find questions about creation, God’s omnipotence, and human destiny.

Smith claims to be a devout Catholic; Dogma is part of his effort to understand his faith and to express his devotion to God. He deserves credit for addressing an issue that much of mainstream Hollywood prefers to ignore. However, he can’t seem to present a coherent message.

This is the gist of Dogma: A cardinal in New Jersey (George Carlin) decides to mark a one-day festival at his parish by granting general absolution to anyone who walks through the church doors on that particular day. Two forsaken angels, Bartleby and Loki (played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, whose acting abilities obviously are far superior to anyone else’s in the film)—who have been long exiled to Wisconsin for refusing to follow God’s orders—conclude that this means that they can walk through said doors, be forgiven their sin of disobedience, and then proceed directly back to heaven. However, what the angels don’t realize is that their potential return to paradise will prove that God was wrong when they were originally exiled, and since all creation was formed and currently exists due to the understanding that God is always right, if the angels walk through that New Jersey church threshold, all life as we know it will be nullified.

Got that? No? Join the club.

In order to stop Bartleby and Loki, the forces of heaven enlist a disaffected Catholic woman named Bethany (house of God, get it?) as their only hope. The heavenly forces include the angel Metatron, a.k.a. the Voice of God (Alan Rickman), and the 13th apostle, Rufus (Chris Rock), who contends that he was left out of the gospels because he is black. They tell Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who works at an abortion clinic, that she possesses a unique strand of DNA, which contradicts her belief (and that of many other traditional Catholics) about the perpetual virginity of Jesus’s mother Mary.

ONE OF THE STRENGTHS of the film lies in its piercing and humorous assessment of the media’s grip on people and the tremendous injury that has done to our culture and our faith. Smith doesn’t have any problem denouncing his own profession and its role in the dumbing of society. Another strength is Smith’s understanding that, if prophets and saviors are needed in our time, God probably would choose an abortion clinic employee and two stoned suburbia dudes, plus a stripper, to get the job done.

Smith is the first to admit that he is no "visual stylist," and he’s right. The lack of creative cinematography in Dogma is almost painful, considering the subject matter. Additionally, several theological hoops are jumped through to make the plot work, including a mind-numbing one about God’s omnipresence. It’s true that faith in God is superior to obedience to human-made rules, but Smith seems to have a cafeteria-style approach to Catholicism: Take whatever feels warm and nice, feel free to dismiss whatever is tough or challenging.

Dogma is not for everyone—it will probably offend almost everybody in one way or another. (The f-word is repeated constantly, and the Jay character manages to sexualize every personal encounter.) It will offend some people deeply. It’s not artistically remarkable. It makes a muddle of Christian theology. Some people consider it disrespectful to God, but it is just the opposite. It’s an engaging little work, because its thesis is so simple: God is gentle and just, God has a nifty sense of humor, God loves us no matter what, and that’s all we need to know. —Judy Coode

JUDY COODE is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.

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