For some reason, I was pretty psyched to see Dogma. I’d
previously seen two other films by Kevin Smith – Clerks and Chasing
Amy – both of which I’d liked, but neither of which became a particular
favorite of mine.
But for some reason, Dogma looked really promising. The
premise – two renegade angels find a loophole to get back into heaven – was
relevant to my current interest in Christian theology and issues of immortality
and its relation to loss and despair. Furthermore, anytime Christian theology
and pop culture mix, especially in a movie, there’s an opportunity for some very
The result of Kevin Smith’s efforts is what amounts to a very
entertaining, and also enlightening, film about Christian and, more
particularly, Catholic values and their relevance in the modern world of the
Internet, rampant consumerism and a standard college-age atheism. But don’t be
fooled – Smith isn’t trying to explore the question "Does God exist?"
or "Does God matter anymore?" He comes down firmly on one side, that
of yes to both, but in doing so he creates a very fun and meaningful film.
The plot is deceptively complex: two renegade angels, Bartleby
and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, respectively) have been cast out of Heaven
for attempting to quit their jobs as God’s agents of wrath. Having chilled out
on Earth for thousands of years, they are given a shot at redemption, so to
speak, when they discover a loophole in Catholic theology: plenary indulgence. A
Catholic church in New Jersey, attempting to kick-start a new image for the
religion (Catholicism WOW!), is planning to hold a special ceremony in which
anyone who passes through the door of the church will be purged of all their
sins immediately. The angels’ plan: cut off their wings and transubstantiate to
human form, then walk through the doors. Thus, when the die, they will ascend to
heaven and rejoin the divine presence they so miss.
The Powers that Be can’t let this happen, so God’s divine
messenger, Metatron (Alan Rickman as his marvelously dry best) appears to the
Last Sion, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino). Bethany, who works in an abortion clinic,
is the archetypal doubting Catholic, dutifully going to church even though she’s
not sure what it means to her anymore. All that changes once she’s visited by
Metatron, and soon she finds herself on a quest to find Bartleby and Loki, and
prevent them from crossing the Church’s door. The stakes? If the angels cross
the door, then God is revealed to be fallible, and the entire universe unravels.
Along the way, Bethany is joined by two "prophets,"
Smith’s omnipresent Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith
himself), as well as Chris Rock’s Rufus, the black 13th apostle who has returned
from the dead to help Bethany and, hopefully, have the story set straight
(according to Rufus, Jesus was a black man). They’re also joined by the Muse
Serendipity (Salma Hayek, who as always has to dance around half-naked before
getting down to brass acting tacks). While the occasionally irritating Jay and
Silent Bob seem to oddly fit with Bethany, Rufus and Serendipity seem like
strange hangers on, as if Smith found himself with a bunch of willing stars but
wasn’t sure what to do with them.
The films suffers from a bit of a dichotomy – sometimes it wants
to be an action-adventure flick, and at other times, most notably when Affleck’s
Bartleby is reflecting on his suffering and his relation to God and mankind, the
film is as honest and complex in its exploration of theology as any more
"serious" film. The film’s centerpiece is a tender scene between
Metatron and Bethany, as Bethany rages against her fate in the water of a lake
and Metatron walks on the water, where Metatron reveals to her some of the pain
and despair that God Himself has gone through for others.
Like any film – and literary work, and comic book, etc. – that
deals with a threat to God, there lingers over the film the same problem faced
by John Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost – how does one create any
drama, any sense of conflict, when God is omnipotent and can squash the threat
with less than a thought? Milton’s solution was to ignore the problem and give
us a wonderfully poetic and tragic view of Satan; similarly, Smith chooses to
ignore God’s omnipotence, at least briefly, through a few clever legal
technicalities that we, as the audience, must accept if we are to enjoy the film
In a world where God’s status is questionable, this may not be
as hard as it sounds. Nonetheless, Smith is giving us as faithful a vision of
Catholicism as any priest – despite what the Catholic League might scream about.
Furthermore, Smith has created a wonderfully fun and entertaining film, and
while being a little long, it sustains your interest until the very end.
And yes, Alanis Morissette plays God.