Friday, November 12, 1999

Obtuse angels

Movie: Dogma

Posted on Fri, Nov 12, 1999 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 4.00

A funny, fast-paced and deliberately provocative film, "Dogma" is the cinematic equivalent of a hot potato. Originally financed by Miramax (the indie-oriented arm of the Walt Disney Company), the theological satire was protested sight unseen by members of the Catholic Church, whose outcries of heresy eventually consigned "Dogma" to distribution by the far smaller Lion's Gate Films. Without the muscle of the Mouse behind it, the film was set adrift on the stormy Sea of Galilee that is the multiplex nation, with only its merits to bring it to shore. Thank God (or Whoever) that the finished product is up to the voyage.

"Dogma" is the fourth film written and directed by Kevin Smith, and completes the self-professed "New Jersey trilogy" the auteur began with "Clerks" and "Mallrats." (The supporting characters of Jay and Silent Bob, fan favorites in those earlier works, put in a return appearance.) Like all of Smith's comedies, "Dogma" concerns itself with young slackers who, armed with a boundless knowledge of pop-culture trivia, combat their limited options and dull environments via pointless games and mischief. Smith's depictions of their strivings manage to be smart and profound, yet intentionally juvenile and smart-assed at the same time.

"Dogma" continues in that tradition, and ups the ante considerably. It's crammed with big ideas, but unafraid to mock those lofty concerns in a manner that might make them appear trivial.

The film begins with the beating of a homeless man by hockey-stick-wielding adolescents in Asbury Park, New Jersey. They're obviously not followers of Catholic Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), whose efforts to give the Church some panache include a P.R. initiative called Catholicism Wow and an Arch of Plenary Indulgence he's building in nearby Red Bank that will cleanse the souls of any who enter.

The project attracts the attention of two fallen angels who have spent the last 2000 years in Wisconsin as punishment for their sins. Loki (Matt Damon) is the original avenging angel, the one who was responsible for Sodom and Gomorrah and the Biblical flood of old. Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who convinced Loki to lay down his flaming sword of vengeance and pity the poor humans, nonetheless incurred the wrath of a God who shows no mercy to disobedient seraphim. Both see the Arch as a loophole in Catholic dogma that will allow them to return to Heaven. Unfortunately, if they do so, they will negate all existence by countering God's infallibility.

"Dogma" displays a detailed knowledge of theologies of all kinds. But instead of producing a reverent work of faith, Smith --a lifelong Catholic who professes a fascination with arcane holy texts -- has delivered a decidedly irreverent and sarcastic view of deities and super beings. Offering up a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, he calls "Dogma" a "trifle" and maintains that God has a sense of humor.

He'd better hope so, because his newest film isn't likely to make him many friends among the holy men down here. For starters, the human who's chosen to prevent the threatened armageddon is one Bethany Sloan (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion-clinic worker who has bitterly rejected God. The aforementioned Silent Bob and Jay (Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, respectively) are portrayed as prophets. Chris Rock plays Rufus, the 13th apostle. And there's always Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a former Muse who now works as a stripper. When it comes to Bible-epic ensembles, Charlton Heston wouldn't recognize any of these folks.

Though it might be seen as sacrilegious, "Dogma" is actually a work of genuine faith. Suggesting that God is a far different being than the one portrayed in any of the major religions, Smith goes on to make his case with characteristic humor and intelligence. Audience members with open minds will love it.

Oh, and God is Alanis Morrisette. That's what I call challenging a belief system.


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