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Old-Time Religion

The first literary work I ever borrowed from a public library was a monster-size comic book stuffed with tales of blood and guts, death and fornication, crime and punishment, sin and redemption -- all overlaid, I only dimly grasped at 7 years old, with a fierce tone of moral inquiry. Had the book not been titled Picture Stories From the Bible, my mother would have snatched it from my grubby paw and placed it high on the X-rated shelves where it surely belonged. Give or take a barrelful of expletives, Kevin Smith‘s new film is very much that book. Which sets me wondering why the indignant forces of religious reaction currently yelling for Smith’s head on a plate are not going after their own Good Book with equal zeal.

Armed with a scaredy-cat rejection letter from Miramax and hate mail from the nothing if not ambitious American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, Smith and his new distributors at Lions Gate Films must be gleefully counting the cash they‘ve saved on advance publicity. Since the housekeepers of cleanliness and godliness have willy-nilly provided all the advance notice the film needs, let’s return the favor and ask their question. Is Dogma profane? No more so than the Bible, certainly no more than any other scabrously gabby Smith movie, and a good deal less than anything in the canon of those lapsed but forever obsessed Catholic filmmakers, from Buñuel and Fellini to Coppola and Scorsese.

There‘s nothing remotely lapsed about Smith, who, in his ribbing, naughty-boy way, is very partial to God. If anything, Dogma, in which a doubting mortal bands together with all manner of flawed creatures from heaven and earth to save God and the world from oblivion, is a profession of faith, made with the confident disrespect of a true believer. Even the church, headed in most movies about Catholicism by a corrupt or venal bishopric heavily in cahoots with the mob or the politicians, gets a break of sorts. Its only red-robed high-up is Cardinal Glick (George Carlin, cast for provocation but coming on downright sweet), a wacky but well-meaning prelate who’s trying to jolly up the church‘s image for the masses by launching a ”Catholicism, Wow!“ campaign. Conceived by Smith, a regular churchgoer, during a period of doubt while he was making his first feature, Clerks, Dogma is seriously at play in the fields of the Lord, though in a manner more likely to bring a smile to the lips of Flannery than Cardinal O’Connor, at least in its conception of the forces of darkness. Radical evil, as embodied by Loki and Bartleby (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), two cocky angels banished for eternity to Wisconsin for disobeying God, is as maliciously prankish as it is sporadically and unpredictably vicious. In one scene Loki storms a corporate boardroom and, after cowing the assembled execs with a list of their unconfessed private sins, gleefully offs them, while Bartleby looks on, mildly disgusted not by Loki‘s violence, but by his lack of self-control.

When it comes to virtue, Smith is a by-the-book multiculti liberal. The good guys in Dogma are represented by a rainbow coalition of freaky underdogs who pool their dubious talents to block Loki and Bartleby from sneaking back into heaven through the gates of Glick’s newly dedicated church, thus rendering God fallible and condemning the world to extinction. In Smith‘s movies it’s women -- angry, dispossessed, effective women -- who lead the way, and Dogma is no exception. The heroine, if such can be called a woman as down in the mouth as Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), works in an abortion clinic and lethargically attends church every Sunday despite her suspicion -- hardened by the departure of her husband when it became clear she couldn‘t have children -- that God is dead. Dragged kicking and screaming into the fray by a testy Voice of God who shows up in her bedroom looking remarkably like Alan Rickman in big white wings, Bethany reluctantly sets out for Smith’s beloved New Jersey to put a stop to Loki and Bartleby and thus save the world.

Fiorentino, the sullen sex bomb of neo-noir, doesn‘t immediately spring to mind as anyone’s earth mother, any more than the ongoing odd couple of Smith‘s movies, jabbermouth Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself), seem promising candidates for the prophets who flank her on her journey. All this countercasting may just be Smith entertaining himself -- the whole movie is powered by a just-for-kicks elan that’s guaranteed to drive Smith‘s detractors up the wall. But the larkiness conceals a declaration that virtue has little to do with surface propriety and nothing whatever to do with good manners, while villainy lurks behind the freshest of faces. Bethany’s a cranky depressive, the prophets lecherous boors; the Muse with whom they hook up along the way, played with spunky smarts by Salma Hayek, works earth as a stripper. In Dogma it‘s the losers (including Chris Rock, who drops naked from the sky to introduce himself as the 13th apostle, expelled from the ranks of Jesus’ disciples because he‘s black), whether mortal or celestial, who rise to the occasion. Smith may look like a straight-up liberal interpreter of Catholicism, but he belongs to a tougher wing of the church altogether, part traditionalist, part Christian socialist, part humanist, who insists upon confronting the worst in mankind before he’ll even start discussing the best. Loki‘s boardroom carnage, all the more powerful for having nothing whatever to do with the plot, recalls the sudden shock of the arbitrary murders in Flannery O’Connor‘s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. And like O’Connor, Smith is both smart enough not to explain the evil away and committed enough to wager on a leap of faith.

Not that Dogma is a seminary thesis. The first of Smith‘s movies to essay a visual style, the movie has all the gruesome cheek of a cartoon for the under-20s. That’s if you go for angels‘ wings detumescing under attack into bloody stumps, and a poop-monster who rears up to sabotage the pilgrims’ progress. The screenplay is another foul-mouthed rehearsal of Smith‘s near-Dickensian genius for the slacker patter of his generation. Yet though Dogma plays like a live-action comic book for boys, it’s also shot through with wisdom at once juvenile and wizened, coupled with a sweetness of temper that rescues Dogma from the sour cleverness -- the mere cleverness -- of chilly youthgeist exercises like Trainspotting. ”Why are we here?“ asks Bethany when at last she has the Deity‘s attention. And is rewarded for her pains by same with an affectionate bop on the nose. A more Buddhist than Catholic gesture, in truth, but absolutely consistent with Smith’s evident enjoyment (lucky man!) of the idea that God moves in a mysterious way, even -- perhaps especially -- when She looks like a ringleted female rock star with a penchant for turning headstands.


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