The United States of America
At some point during the history of American cinema, the predominant view of organized religion, in particular Christianity, seemed to shift. Up until around the 70s, organized religion was treated positively. Early Hollywood cinema is full of heroic priests and clergy. Prominent examples include Father Jerry Connolly (Angels with Dirty Faces), Father Charles O’Malley (Going My Way), and Father Barry (On the Waterfront). Faith was depicted as something to cherish and respect. Who can forget the scene from Captains Courageous when Manuel Fidello (played by Spencer Tracy) wistfully recounts his personal beliefs and convictions? But, as I said, at some point, the predominant view of religion within the cinema became ugly and negative. Organized religion was seen as a tool used to subjugate the masses, priests were seen as ignorant fools (and more recently, child molesters), and it became a badge of honor for many characters to abandon their faith. Think I’m joking? Try this: name five clergymen from mainstream American movies of the last decade who were not depicted as: a) a moron, b) a criminal, or c) comedic relief. Priests in the background who officiate weddings, funerals, and baptisms don’t count. I’m talking about priests who are actual characters with names. It’s quite a challenge, isn’t it?
Religion, for whatever reason, has come to be seen as antiquated, ignorant, and corrupt by the entertainment industry. It’s almost impossible for films to take the matter of faith seriously anymore. And yet, there has been one massive exception to this unusual trend. The film in question is Dogma, the fourth film by writer/direction Kevin Smith. Blending a surprisingly wide berth of knowledge concerning Catholic mythology, his trademark dialogue, and his innate insight into the world around him, Smith created a film that was simultaneously funny, charming, emotional, and moving. It is both a critique and celebration of not just religion, but Faith, with a capital ‘F.’ And yet, the most surprising thing about this film is how Smith was able to disguise all of this beneath a veneer of profanity, violence, and, dare I say, adventure.
Protagonists in Smith’s films are almost always stuck in personal quagmires that keep them from moving forward in life. Dante Hicks from Clerks is doomed to work in a convenience store until his 30s. T.S. Quint from Mallrats can’t mature emotionally beyond spending all day playing video games and reading comics. And Holden McNeil from Chasing Amy lets his immaturity concerning his partner’s sexual past ruin their relationship. In Smith’s films, his characters’ insecurities and internal struggles are their worst enemies. The protagonist from Dogma isn’t any different. The film follows Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino), a 35 year old woman living in McHenry, Illinois. She once was a devout Catholic, but a series of setbacks, such as her having an infection in her uterus leaving her sterile and her husband abandoning her, has stripped her of her faith. So, emotionally disconnected from her faith and the rest of the world, Bethany has resigned herself to working in an abortion clinic.
Bethany at Mass, just going through the motions.
But this all changes when she is visited one night by the Seraphim Metatron (Alan Rickman), the angel who serves as the voice of God.
Alan Rickman as the Metatron appearing before Bethany for the first time.
He informs her that she has been entrusted by God with a holy task: to stop two fallen angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) from exploiting a loophole in Catholic dogma which would allow them to return Heaven. The two angels were thrown out of Heaven when Loki, the Angel of Death, got drunk and resigned his post upon Bartleby’s encouragement. They discover that a church in Red Bank, New Jersey is celebrating their centennial with a plenary indulgence, an outdated Catholic practice that automatically forgives anyone who walks through the church doors of their sins. All Bartleby and Loki have to do is travel to Red Bank, cut off their wings (thereby transforming them into humans), walk through the doors, and die. As a result, they will be allowed to reenter Heaven. There is only one problem: to do so would be to overrule the word of God. Metatron explains that the entire fabric of the universe depends on one cardinal law: that God is always right. To prove God wrong would literally end all of existence.
But Metatron tells her not to worry, as she will have company on her journey. He speaks of a pair of prophets who will guide her. Yet Bethany still refuses, believing that Metatron’s appearance was only a dream...at least until she is brutally attacked by the Stygian Triplets, three demonic hockey stick-wielding teens. She is saved from being brutally murdered by none other than Jay and Silent Bob, a pair of drug dealers who serve as the de facto mascots of Kevin Smith’s career.
Jay and Silent Bob as the unlikely prophets.
Jay (Jason Mewes) is a foul-mouthed stoner and Silent Bob (played by director Kevin Smith) is his speechless partner. As luck would have it, the two are none other than the prophets foretold by the Metatron. Along the way to New Jersey, the three are joined by Rufus, the thirteenth apostle (Chris Rock) who was left out of the Bible because he was black and Serendipity (Salma Hayek) a Muse with writer’s block working in a strip club who became human because she wanted to finally get credit for all of her work.
As with any film involving Kevin Smith, inevitable hijinks ensue. Bartleby and Loki take a break from their journey to murder a boardroom full of sinful company executives in an attempt to gain favor from God.
Bethany must fight off Jay’s constant attempts to clumsily seduce her. They are kidnapped by Azrael, a former Muse banished to Hell who may have set the entire plot in motion for the most sinister reason imaginable. And the two parties engage in a one-sided battle on the steps of the Red Bank church. It is all very formulaic and predictable. But what separates Dogma from other such films is what goes on in between such deadly encounters: the characters actually talk to each other.
And what conversations they have! Kevin Smith has always been praised, even by his detractors, for his incredible gift at writing dialogue. In this case, the dialogue is used to wax philosophical on subjects of faith. Take one particular exchange between Bethany and Rufus on the subject of whether or not Jesus still loves humanity:
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name - wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn't good?
Rufus: I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier...
Changing a belief is trickier...
Or take another more humorous discussion between the Metatron and Bethany:
Bethany: What's he like?
Metatron: God? Lonely. But funny. He's got a great sense of humor. Take sex for example. There's nothing funnier than the ridiculous faces you people make mid-coitus.
Bethany: Sex is a joke in heaven?
Metatron: The way I understand it, it's mostly a joke down here, too.
These are not things that a person could casually bang out on a typewriter over the span of a weekend. These discussions reflect serious, intense examinations and reflections on the subject of faith and God. And therein lies the true power of Dogma: despite its irreverent and graphic humor and content, it takes the idea of faith and religion more seriously than any other mainstream film made in the last few decades. It’s an extremely graphic movie and certainly not for the faint of heart. But those who dare to take it seriously, to look beyond the profane surface will find one of the most introspective and passionate films on faith ever made.
For those who still don’t believe me, I would like to draw your attention to one last scene in particular. Bethany has learned that the reason why she has been selected to stop Bartleby and Loki is because she is the last Scion, aka the last blood descendant of Jesus Christ. Horrified by this realization, she runs away from her friends and into a nearby lake where she shrieks how much she doesn’t want this and how much she hates God. And without missing a beat, the Metatron appears before her, standing on the water.
Bethany: I don't want this, it's too big.
Metatron: That's what Jesus said. Yes, I had to tell him. And you can imagine how that hurt the Father - not to be able to tell the Son Himself because one word from His lips would destroy the boy's frail human form? So I was forced to deliver the news to a scared child who wanted nothing more than to play with other children. I had to tell this little boy that He was God's only Son, and that it meant a life of persecution and eventual crucifixion at the hands of the very people He came to enlighten and redeem. He begged me to take it back, as if I could. He begged me to make it all not true. And I'll let you in on something, Bethany, this is something I've never told anyone before... If I had the power, I would have.
I think I've made my point.
Peace be with you, my friends. Amen.