It’s starting to seem like an outrage — if not a sacrilege. Whenever a movie is pilloried by religious protesters, it inevitably turns out to be one of the rare films of genuine religious feeling. Movies such as The Last Temptation of Christ or Priest are powerful because of how deeply they come to grips with the inordinate demands of faith. Maybe that’s why they aroused such ire: They’re too honest to make being a good Christian look easy.
Offhand, however, I’m not sure that a movie has ever inspired a protest more fraught with irony than Kevin Smith’s Dogma. This deliriously audacious, one-of-a-kind satirical passion play is as rascally in its glee as anything in Mad magazine, yet it’s also a searching and obsessive meditation on faith in our time. The entire movie is a wild and intricate theological debate, a Sunday-school catechism session turned into a snap-crackle-and-pop thrill sermon for the mind. Smith conjures up a bickering party of angels, demons, apostles, and prophets, and it’s like seeing one of Lenny Bruce’s organized-religion routines come to life. Smith, make no mistake, is far from a blasphemer (the only thing obscene about Dogma is how cruddy it looks), but, my God, does he love to tweak pieties! He turns adolescent naughtiness into a style, a worldview, and Dogma, in its very form, is a manic act of transubstantiation.
Smith follows a pair of bad-boy angels as they attempt to regain their place in heaven. At the beginning, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are sitting around in an airport, and before we can even be sure what they’re talking about, the two have let fly a flurry of boasts and parries, like a couple of wise-guy jocks one-upping each other with baseball statistics. Who, exactly, are these two? Their names are Loki and Bartleby, and they’re angels who have been consigned to everlasting exile in Wisconsin. It seems that they were tossed out of heaven when God, mellowing (presumably) into His New Testament phase, cut down on his need for holy avengers. As we listen to their punchy, arcane patter, we realize that they’re discussing a loophole in church dogma — a doctrinal fallacy that may allow them to win their way back. There’s just one problem: The plan, if it succeeds, will contradict the infallibility of God, thus wiping out all of human existence.
The notion of a metaphysical belief system that hinges on a single technicality of divine law is richly embedded in Catholic consciousness, and Smith blends a seminarian’s fastidiousness with his own ragtag pop style — a fusion of comic books, Howard Stern, and amiably slovenly Gen-X ‘tude. In Dogma, what he’s really doing is creating a cosmic comedy out of the distance between our world, with its petty lusts and hypocrisies, and the one above. Smith piles on such celestial eccentrics as a winged seraphim, played with irresistible sulky charm by Alan Rickman, who goes on a crusade to stop Loki and Bartleby, enlisting the aid of an abortion-clinic worker named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a Catholic who is losing hold of her faith. Dropping out of the sky — literally — is Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th apostle, who claims to have been left out of the Bible because he’s black. Asked if he knew Jesus, Rufus replies, ”Knew him? Nigger owes me 12 bucks!”
Like most good satirists, Smith is actually a moralist in disguise. It’s not Catholicism that triggers his parodist’s ire, but the mess its followers have made of it. Dogma is the sort of movie in which angels speak with cheerfully dirty mouths and take swipes at each other over an old bet about the box office gross of E.T. versus Krush Groove, yet it would be a mistake to regard the slash-and-burn dialogue as simply outrageous. In their jostling, sarcastic way, Loki and Bartleby have bruised and hungry egos; they can’t believe how far man has fallen. The two go on a bloody mission to cleanse the world of sinners (inspecting a gun at a weapons shop, Loki says, ”It doesn’t have that wrath-of-the-Almighty edge to it!”), and when they start spraying bullets, ego — that is, selfishness emerges as the film’s true theme; it’s the enemy of faith. When does holiness tip over into righteousness? When it becomes all about you. The film gently separates the arrogant and the greedy from the merely infantile, finding an affectionate place for Jay and Silent Bob (played, as always, by Jason Mewes and Smith himself), the dude-savant Mutt-and-Jeff slackers who’ve appeared in every Smith film. This time, they’re along as prophets who enlist in Bethany’s crusade, and the movie, with its dizzying whirl of issues, needs every bit of their blitzed hormonal innocence.
I do wish that Smith would discipline himself into becoming more of a bona fide filmmaker. At times, Dogma suggests a radio play that’s been hastily staged as a movie; like all of Smith’s work, it occasionally lumbers and stalls. He doesn’t give Linda Fiorentino enough of a heroine to play, and considering the film’s array of (knowingly) cheap-looking special effects, it could have used more of a magical fantasy sheen. Still, you forgive the slipshod rhythms and the spare, merely functional visuals when you reach the climactic confrontation at a New Jersey church. Affleck makes Bartleby, now veering over to the dark side, into a figure of majestic malevolence, and by the time that Alanis Morissette shows up as the Almighty Herself (the singer’s beatific good humor makes the stunt casting work), the tensions have fused into a vision of transcendence and light. It’s not every day you get to see a movie that begins in satire and ends in reverence, but then, for Kevin Smith, they may ultimately be the same thing.