Touched Angels

Dogma yells “Fire!’ in a crowded church. Rosetta’s grasp of the mundane underpins its rage against capitalism.

In his raucous, vaudevillian allegory Dogma, Kevin Smith concocts a scenario in which the will of God comes apocalyptically into conflict with Catholic doctrine. To wholly relate how that happens–the plot involves a missionary New Jersey cardinal (George Carlin), the devil, and two fallen, somewhat insane angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck)–would not only ruin the surprise, it would ruin this review, since there are nearly as many convolutions in the narrative as there are in Scripture. I first wrote about Dogma (and Smith’s edgy press conference) when the movie had its American premiere in October at the New York Film Festival amid demonstrations by the Catholic League and other groups. Click here to read that account. Then I’ll tell you a few things that I wish I’d said, regret saying, and might have said better.

Some additional hosannas first. The angels’ wings are cool. They look like genuine flesh, blood, and cartilage, especially when they’re clipped, and they literally add texture to effects that might have seemed, well, featherweight. Dogma is the first time that Smith–whose clunky direction in Chasing Amy (1997) did his skillful script no favors–seems interested in moving the camera, composing the frame, editing, etc. The mixture of slacker small-talk, goofy slapstick, and Grand Guignol horror works better than anyone could have imagined. What holds it all together is the writer-director’s fervid conviction. A hint of cynicism would have turned Dogma into camp, but the movie–in spite of its rubber poop monsters and splattery gore and smutty jokes–has the resonance of belief.

On reflection, however, I think that Smith was being a tad disingenuous when he said at his press conference that he wasn’t expecting an angry reaction. Yes, he’s a good Catholic boy, but he’s also schooled in the works of that very bad Catholic boy, John Waters. Yes, he wanted to affirm his reverence for God and Jesus, but he also wanted to give a hot-foot to the Catholic Church. Like a lot of good comics, he wanted to be “outrageous”–but he didn’t necessarily want to outrage. He was truly shocked when homicidally anti-Semitic letters poured into the offices of Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax. (Its parent company, Disney, ultimately decided not to distribute the film.) And he’s legitimately terrified of death threats–who wouldn’t be? He wanted people to talk–and laugh and argue–about his movie, but he had no intention of courting martyrdom.

Let’s go further and admit that Smith is not merely “kicking the tires of his faith”–he’s slashing them. He’s saying that organized religion needs a better tread. He’s blaming the indifferent status of a lot of Catholics on the church itself. (His churchgoing heroine, Bethany, played by Linda Fiorentino, has become so desensitized to Vatican teachings that she works in an abortion clinic.) Smith has written a character–the 13th apostle, played by Chris Rock–whose view of organized religion is akin to Gov. Jesse Ventura’s: He believes it has lost touch with the fundamental religious impulse. In the film, there is no counterweight to Rock’s apostle–no substantial or sane character who speaks on the rightness of Catholic dogma. There isn’t even a Dostoevskian Grand Inquisitor to tell us why humans need so many rules and regulations to keep from following their animal natures into despair and anarchy. The tone of Dogma might be searching, but Smith already has his answers. Unlike Martin Scorsese, whose solemn 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation ofChrist set off a similar firestorm, Smith has earned the wrath. He should just say: “I meant to piss you off, just don’t start any pogroms or shoot me.”

There’s another aspect of Dogma that rattles peoples’ cages. Most millennial apocalypse fantasies have been promulgated by the religious right, which wants to frighten people into repenting their liberal attitudes toward the Scripture. Outside of weird fringe pictures such as Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To (1977), Dogma is the first truly countercultural apocalypse fantasy. Smith is fighting the end-of-the-world mavens on their own turf, appropriating their rhetoric and their symbols for his own, decidedly less Moral Majoritarian ends. You can imagine the doomsayers storming out of theaters and fuming, “Whose Armageddon is it, anyway?”

The camera is at eye level for Rosetta. In the tumultuous opening, it hurtles down a staircase behind the teen-age title character (Emilie Dequenne) as she tries to elude the factory boss who has just fired her. It swerves left then right as she pulls on locked doors in a vain attempt to evade the plant’s security. It’s sickeningly in the thick of things as she claws at her pursuers and shrieks that it’s unfair, she’s a good worker, she doesn’t deserve to be let go. Throughout this terse, entertaining parable (it won the grand prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), the Belgian-born writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (La Promesse, 1996) immerse you in the sensations of Rosetta’s life: her daily, roundabout slog through the woods to reach the trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic mother (she’s too ashamed to go through the front entrance); her frustrating treks to find employment, however menial; and, most of all, her countless rages at a society that refuses to grant her a “normal” (her word) existence.

By confining the movie’s perspective to Rosetta and her rituals, the Dardennes suggest the ways in which people lose the big picture and so have no insight into their own corruption. All they know is what they need–and what will happen if someone else beats them out. In Dequenne, the filmmakers have found a somewhat lumpen girl with just a trace of prettiness, especially when she opens her eyes and lets the world see in. She mostly doesn’t, though, which is the point. She tromps around dull-eyed in a gray skirt and thick, mustard-colored stockings–a sullen bottom-feeder. When a generous friend, Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione)–the only one she has ever had, the film implies–falls into quicksand and screams for help, you can see Rosetta’s thought processes: If he dies, his job will open up, she’ll get it, and she’ll be “normal.”

As in the La Promesse, the point is to show how capitalism is fundamentally at odds with human decency. People are good, but they’re driven to victimize others by the fear that what they have will be taken away. At best, they turn into machines; at worst (most of the bosses), they become casual exploiters. You can’t land a job without being raked by the angry gaze of the person you’ve unfairly replaced, and once you have it there are no guarantees that tomorrow you won’t be raking someone else with your own angry gaze. Change the way things work and you will change mankind, is the implicit message–although it’s crucial to add that there are no explicit messages, no Brechtian/Marxist exhortations. Both Rosetta and La Promesse end at the point when their protagonist’s consciousness begins. The next step is anyone’s guess.

I fear I’ve made Rosetta sound programmatic. Well, it is, but the thing you come away with isn’t the program but the rhythm and texture of a young, working-class woman’s life. The Dardennes are peerless at staging and shooting rituals, such as Rosetta’s day selling waffles and beer from a truck: taking an order, plucking a waffle from the iron, grabbing a beer from the shelf, counting money, making change, saying thank you, taking another order … It’s easy to dismiss films that make grandiose statements about how people ought to live but never convincingly portray how they do. The utterly believable capitalist ecosystems of the Dardennes are harder to shake off.

M ost of the good stuff in William Trevor’s novel Felicia’s Journey takes place behind the eyes of its central characters: a young Irish girl, Felicia, who crosses the sea to England in a hopeful quest to find the father of her unborn child; and the fat, middle-aged catering manager, Hiditch, who takes a paternal interest in the lass when it becomes clear that her young man has caddishly given her the slip. The girl is a naive, but her mixture of optimism and spooky prescience gives her perceptions weight, and Hiditch has a subterranean existence that’s constantly at odds with his pleasantries: He might well be a psychopath who has preyed on–and dispatched–other young women. Atom Egoyan, the Canadian director (Exotica, 1994; The Sweet Hereafter, 1997) who adapted and directed the book, does tender, morbidly evocative work. As Felicia, the coltish Elaine Cassidy manages to look both luminous and unformed, and Bob Hoskins gives Hiditch’s bland homilies so much subtext he made me think of the Paris Opera House in the Phantom of the Opera: basement under basement under basement down to the dungeons. Handing Felicia a cup of tea, he says, “The goodness is in the warmth, they say,” and I half expected maggots to swarm out of his mouth.

The movie doesn’t come to much, though. Egoyan’s best films have tricky textures: They double and triple back on themselves in ways that play against the characters’ bland visages and the often sterile settings. Here, apart from a few choice flashbacks, the action is crawlingly linear–and opaque. Egoyan has invented a delicious character–Hiditch’s celebrity French chef mom–for his wife, the marvelous Arsinée Khanjian, and she gives the movie a jolt of energy whenever she pops up on TV screens or in Hiditch’s memory. But the rest is just a cat-and-mouse game for a rather slow-witted cat and an even slower-witted mouse. On Quaaludes. Under water …