"The Vatican contacted me through my agent and asked me to make a recruitment film," joked director Kevin Smith at the Cannes Film Festival, where his off-color Catholic satire Dogma screened last May. On a more serious note: "I was in confession about a year ago," Smith recalled, "and I told the priest, 'Well, I'm making this little picture called Dogma, and it's pro-faith--with a few dick and fart jokes in it.' And the priest pointed out something that I later used in my defense: He said, 'Well, you know, Christ was a storyteller, too.' And I was like, 'Oh--so I guess I'm in good company.'"
Kevin Smith and Jesus Christ--coming soon to a theater near you? Unlikely as that may seem, it isn't half as surprising as Dogma's spiritual likeness to The Last Temptation of Christ: As it happens, both films take an audaciously unorthodox approach to an earnest debate of faith, spirituality, and what constitutes redemption. But each movie is its maker's own, and so, where Martin Scorsese set his period film on the mean streets of sand, Smith's contemporary one winds up in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey, re-imagined as a millennial battleground in the blockbuster war between good (Alanis Morissette) and evil (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck). And where Scorsese's disciples wax theological in thick Brooklynese, Smith's jive-talkin' "13th apostle" (Chris Rock) says of the redeemer, "Nigga owes me 12 bucks!"
Does that offend you? Smith, the convenience-store clerk turned politically incorrect auteur who made dykes safe for jocks (Chasing Amy), here means to renovate the Roman Catholic church for the sake of Nineties agnostics--not unlike the Dogma archbishop (George Carlin) whose "Catholicism...WOW!" campaign revolves around a winking "Buddy Christ" icon. In a way, Dogma deigns to be the slacker's Oh, God!: The movie's distaff deity (Morissette) is a devout and near-silent skeeball fanatic; its doubt-afflicted protagonist is an abortion-clinic employee (Linda Fiorentino) whose husband left her (Hell hath no fury...); its prophets are Smith's venerable stoners Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself); its celestial muse (Salma Hayek) moonlights as a stripper; its horn-sprouting demon (Jason Lee) heads a trio of delinquent skaters with hockey sticks; and its fallen angels (Damon and Affleck), threatening to "negate all existence," have been temporarily banished by God to a place worse than Hell--that is, Wisconsin.
These and other screwball characters convey their conflicted beliefs through Smith's endlessly obscene comic dialogue: As the filmmaker put it at Cannes, "I write like I shit--which is quite a lot." Small wonder the impending apocalypse is signaled by an overrun watering-hole toilet, out of which oozes the so-called Golgothan Shit Demon. (Call it an unholy excretion of the StayPuft Man from Ghostbusters.) Like Smith's Clerks and Mallrats, Dogma discharges all manner of crude pop-culture detritus (including gratuitous shout-outs to Run D.M.C., John Hughes, and other Eighties icons). But here, in the context of the characters' struggle to locate God within a shallow milieu, the endless allusions signify enfeebled humanity. (Alan Rickman's disgruntled seraph says it best: "You people--if there isn't a movie about it, it isn't worth knowing.") So too the film shrewdly offsets the "Ben and Matt factor" by casting the cute co-stars of Good Will Hunting as natural-born killers--although their act of violently laying waste a distinctly Disney-style boardroom does threaten to turn them into the movie's secret heroes.
Perhaps this savagely funny scene (as much as any sacrilege per se) is what convinced Miramax's corporate owners at Disney to excommunicate Dogma from the Magic Kingdom--which, ironically, may well have magnified the movie's box-office potential. Nothing sells like a scandal, and at Cannes, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein--who had recently bought the film from his own company in order to sell it later and thereby escape the wrath of Uncle Walt--took advantage of the Disney brouhaha by conducting an "impromptu" sermon-cum-sales pitch in the middle of the street after the film's first screening. "I paid for the movie, I wrote my check, I stood up for what I believe in," Weinstein bragged about his wares--in front of two dozen or so critics whose combined salaries couldn't secure the screening rights for the Sudan. (Ultimately, the indie distributor Lions Gate stepped up to fill the entrepreneur's collection plate.)
For his part, the 29-year-old director claimed to be "not so worried about the controversy" in May, four months before a thousand protesters gathered at the New York Film Festival to distribute anti-Dogma postcards futilely addressed to the film's former owner. "I wasn't stupid going into this movie," he said at Cannes. "I knew the potential for offending some people--and I didn't want to offend people with this movie. I wanted to inspire people to think about their spirituality or about God. So often we get caught up in the politics of religion and forget about why we're in church in the first place. The thing I always thought about the movie was, 'How could anyone really get offended by it? It's got a rubber poop-monster in it, you know?' I think once people see it, they'll say, 'This is controversial? This is nothing--it's adolescent at best.'"
In that self-deprecating spirit, Dogma opens with a printed disclaimer that the film is "not to be taken seriously," and that "passing judgment is reserved for God and God alone (this goes for you film critics too...just kidding)." Be that as it may, this critic has got to hand it to Smith for converting a nonbeliever to his faith: Dogma is bold, smartly written, well-staged, and thoroughly entertaining--the auteur's holy cross between Last Temptation, his beloved Star Wars, and his own much-maligned Mallrats. To borrow a bit from the movie's vernacular, Dogma is up to its ass in Christian mythology, and yet Smith cleverly weaves his own revisionist material into the mix, allowing him to dis, among other things, the Good Book's blatant sexism (perhaps the kind of feminism that guys adopt in order to get laid?). Likewise, aside from one regrettable wet T-shirt scene, Fiorentino has the richest female role in any Amerindie this year--which for Smith represents a huge advance over the miraculously cured lesbian of Chasing Amy. And while the director humbly confessed at Cannes that, "visually, I don't think I have much going on," his latest palette often pops, particularly in the film's climactic action blowout involving splattered mortals and bloody angels' wings.
In the end, Dogma does find God, and she happens to be in the auteur's own image--or at least in the near-speechless tradition of his alter ego Silent Bob. But has Smith the practicing Catholic found peace? "I was telling my priest," he recalled, 'You know, I'm not sure where I am with this stuff anymore. I used to believe so much when I was a kid, and now it's so much more difficult.' And he said, 'Well, when you're a kid, you're kind of like a shot glass.' He was breaking it down in drinking terms for me. 'It's easy to fill a shot glass, but the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and so the same amount of liquid that fills a shot glass can't fill a tumbler. So it's your job to fill it up. We [of the cloth] can only go so far; you have to bring something to the table.' So I did: I went out there and figured some things out for myself, and sort of came up with my own version of Catholicism: Catholicism plus Kev."
Here ends the reading.
Dogma starts Friday at area theaters.