Dogma’s Sacred Profanity

At a press conference following the screening of his film Dogma, which will have its first public showing October 4 as part of the New York Film Festival, the writer, director, and professed devout Catholic Kevin Smith appeared both shell-shocked and befuddled by the outrage that his movie, sight unseen, had provoked. We’re talking about a fury so fierce (it has been spearheaded by a group called the Catholic League) that Miramax and its parent company, Disney, dropped the theological comedy-thriller like a hot cross bun. Protests are planned for Monday at Lincoln Center, and all involved (the picture’s new distributor is Lion’s Gate Films) have braced themselves for more noise and death threats. The only silver lining, said Smith, was that he’d edited out that “elephant-dung Madonna scene. I mean, it’s one thing to have the Catholic League mad at you, but you don’t want to have the mayor of New York mad at you.”

Finally seeing the movie, I find it hard not to share Smith’s perplexity. It would be one thing if Dogma were, as charged, virulently anti-Catholic or even blasphemous. But the film, a sort of apocalyptic Miltonian vaudeville, is among the most passionately religious and God-fearing ever made in this country. It’s supremely moving. True, it’s also raucous, bloody, smutty, and strewn with four-letter words, and the final incarnation of the Almighty has little in common with depictions you might find in, say, the Vatican museum. Yet the qualities that make Dogma seem a work of irreverence are precisely those that make it so spiritually reanimating. The film has been made by an artist for whom questions of faith are central to daily life. It seems only logical, then, not to segregate those questions from that life but to weave them in with the filmmaker’s other obsessions: friendship, lust, drinking, love of trashy horror flicks, and the compulsion to sit around b.s.’ing all night about why the Creator made so many things that are patently absurd.

The movie’s canvas–too vast to itemize completely here–features a New Jersey bishop (a Borscht Belt turn by George Carlin) who argues that Jesus should not be represented by gory images of his earthy demise. After all: “He was a booster!” Seizing on a loophole in Catholic dogma, the Bishop plans to reconsecrate his church so that anyone who passes through its archway will be officially cleansed of sin and entitled to enter heaven. This attracts the notice of two waggish, somewhat insane fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who have a hilarious Hope-Crosby rapport): They have spent 2,000 depressing years in exile (in Wisconsin) and now see a way to “go home.” The problem, then, is the tension between dogma and God’s will. If the angels (who become serial killers on their trek to New Jersey, gorily murdering Ten Commandments violators as a kind of last hurrah), succeed in their mission, God will be shown to be fallible, the center will not hold, and the apocalypse will destroy all life in the universe.

Representatives of the Devil, naturally, do all they can to make that happen, while God’s servants–among them Alan Rickman as the resonant and wearily fey “Voice of God,” Salma Hayek as a slinky muse, and Chris Rock as the “Thirteenth Apostle” (the black one expunged from Scripture)–struggle to stave off Armageddon. For reasons that would spoil a number of surprises, their efforts revolve around a Catholic woman named Bethany (an unprecedentedly soulful Linda Fiorentino), who goes to church every Sunday but feels that God has stopped listening. The core of the film, emotionally, is Bethany’s conversations with sundry mortals, angels, and demons about her loss of faith. The complaints about Catholic dogma are voiced by Rock’s liberal Apostle, who argues that what matters most is faith and not the rituals that are supposed to give it a Seal of Approval.

So yes, Dogma is critical of organized religion. But why not regard it as the constructive criticism of a believer? Smith described it as “kicking the tires of my faith,” and added that he considers both God and Jesus “friends” who would not be averse to having fun poked at them–especially when that fun is grounded in a fervent respect for their existence and power. In the movie’s credits, Smith thanks a “Sister Theresa,” who changed his life, he said, when she declared that Jesus’ remark during the Last Supper that Peter would be the rock of his church was likely facetious–a joke. Suddenly, Smith said, the figures at the heart of Christianity weren’t abstract theological mouthpieces but flesh-and-blood humans who spoke his language.

Smith believes that the Catholic League, which is authorized by neither the Church nor the Vatican, was looking for an excuse to attack Disney that particular week. (Many of the letters sent to Miramax chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein were homicidally anti-Semitic.) But I’m not so sure that the film would have slipped by unnoticed in any event. Another deeply devout and religious film, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptaion of Christ (1988), was furiously attacked for portraying Jesus as lost and uncertain–plagued by doubts. Smith slyly echoes Scorsese’s film when Rickman’s Voice of God, attempting to convert the reluctant Bethany to his cause, explains that Jesus didn’t take it any better when told of the painful destiny that awaited him: “I had to deliver the news to a scared child who only wanted to play with other children.” There are people who find threatening the idea that no serious faith, no faith worth a damn–not of men, angels, or even Jesus–could possibly be untested.

It’s the atheists and agnostics who have the easiest time making movies nowadays–the ones who don’t confront the issue of faith at all. The believers, meanwhile, get crucified. “I tried to do something good and got hassled for it,” said Smith. “To spread the word of Christ, and also throw in a few fart and dick jokes.” An amusing series of titles that open the film now urge the audience not to get too worked up–to see the movie not as a fanatical attack on religion but as a reverent goof. But he’s worried about the “good Christians” who haven’t seen Dogma yet and have written to say that he better buy himself a flak jacket. Once they see it, he said, their minds will change–“I mean, it’s got a rubber poop monster!”