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Dogma

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 12 November 1999

Dogma  

Written and Directed by Kevin Smith

Starring Matt Damon, 
Ben Affleck, Linda Fiorentino, 
Jason Lee, Chris Rock, 
Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, 
Salma Hayek, and George Carlin

Kevin Smith must be laughing his ass off right about now. Months before his latest film, Dogma, had even hit theaters, the movie found itself under fire from the Catholic League and numerous other religious organizations, who called the work blasphemous, offensive, and sinful. Naturally, few of these protesters had actually bothered to see the movie before they passed judgement on it, but the fervor convinced the ultra-conservative Disney corporation to renege on their agreement to release it.

For months, the film sat on Smith's shelf. Now, courtesy of a new distributor (Lion's Gate Entertainment), Dogma is finally playing at your local multiplex, drawing sell-out crowds and receiving some of the best reviews and word-of-mouth of any movie this year. Watching it, one is struck not by thoughts of blasphemy but by the deep spiritual foundation upon which Smith, a devout Catholic, has built this remarkable film. This is the movie that so terrified one of America's most powerful corporations?

The story: Concerned with dwindling membership, the Catholic Church decides to update its image. Gone is the tired symbol of Jesus on the cross, an image church officials now believe to be 'depressing.' As Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) explains, "Christ didn't come to Earth to give us the willies!" Replacing the crucifix is 'Buddy Jesus,' a new, happier logo depicting the savior giving the thumbs-up sign. As an additional incentive for new members to join, the organization makes a special offer: if a person walks through the doorway of a church on a certain day, all of that person's sins will be instantly forgiven -- sort of like a 'try before you buy' deal.

This is good news indeed for Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartlby (Ben Affleck), two renegade angels who have been thrown out of Heaven and sentenced to a fate worse than Hell: eternal life in Wisconsin. They see a possible loophole in the church's offer: if they pass through the door and have their sins forgiven, shouldn't they then be able to return to Heaven? Well, yes. The downside: this loophole would serve as proof that God is not perfect. Since all of creation is built on the belief that God is infallible, the universe will instantly blink out of existence if the angels' plan succeeds. Only thing is, Loki and Bartlby, poor schmucks, don't realize this.

Bethany Sloan (Linda Fiorentino) is a thirty-something atheist who works in an abortion clinic. Religion has played no part in her life since she lost her ability to bear children after a womb infection. As it happens, however, Bethany is the last living descendant of Jesus Christ; therefore, she is given the task of stopping Loki and Bartlby. Along the way the reluctant heroine receives assistance from a number of increasingly oddball sidekicks, including the muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a black apostle named Rufus (Chris Rock), and a pair of accidental prophets, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (director Kevin Smith himself).

Smith is more known for his clever wordplay than his directorial ability (he freely admits that his style of moviemaking consists of simply pointing the camera at the actors and shooting), and Dogma isn't likely to change anyone's opinion of his visual blandness. But this is a story driven by its dialogue, and once again Smith proves, as he did in Chasing Amy, that he has few equals when it comes to eloquent verbal prose. The script is simply brilliant -- Smith fills every line with satire that doesn't merely bite but actually rips out huge chunks of meat. Nothing is sacred here, and yet, oddly, everything is: Dogma's spiritual side is plainly evident, even as the film makes some startling comedic revelations about Jesus' lineage. And wait 'til you see who plays God.

Dogma encourages thought and discussion. It wants all viewers -- Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc. -- to leave the theater with a better grasp of their own spirituality, but makes no attempt to change anyone's mind about anything. Naturally, this approach is threatening to some people, the stoic sort who view church as a chore to be endured rather than an excuse for celebration. But I side with Smith: God definitely has a sense of humor. After all, as the director points out in the film's disclaimer, just look at the platypus.

The final verdict: the only people likely to be offended by Dogma are those whose minds are too narrow to recognize the truth (or themselves!) in this brilliant piece of work. Far from being blasphemous, Dogma is a plea for religious tolerance, one which gets its point across by making us realize how ridiculous people can act 'in the name of God.' Those of us who are enlightened enough to realize that organized religion is a possible path to spiritual enlightenment--and not the destination itself--will have a marvelous time, and may even leave the theater feeling spiritually uplifted, as I did. Preach on, Brother Smith. Can I get an ďAmen?"

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