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"The whole f***ing world's against us, dude, I swear to God."

Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Stars: Linda Fiorentino, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Rock, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, Salma Hayek, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, George Carlin, Janeane Garofalo, Bud Cort
Year: 1999
Major Awards: Independent Spirit Award noms - Best Screenplay
Golden Satellite noms - Best Supporting Actor (Rickman), Best Song (“Still”)

One of the most heralded episodes of “Sports Night” involved one of the characters getting in trouble for his views on marijuana. The character, Dan Rydell, was one of two anchors on the show-within-a-show Sports Night, and during a magazine interview, the issue of marijuana legalization came up. He was in favour of it (though his reasons were not what you would expect) and since he worked for a TV show that promoted clean and healthy living in sports, he got in big trouble with the network. While arguing his case to the studio heads, Dan stated, “Actions are immoral. Opinions are not. And I won't apologize for mine. Discussion is good, and for those of us fortunate enough to be the subject of magazine articles, it may be our responsibility from time to time to try and raise the level of debate.”

Such a sentiment is relatively applicable to Kevin Smith’s lightning-rod-of-a-movie Dogma. Dogma is a film that deals with religion – specifically, Christianity – but in a completely unconventional and unorthodox way (no pun intended). There have always been films made that embrace and glorify Christianity, from The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur to The Apostle and The Passion of the Christ. There have also been those that mock and denounce it, like Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, Saved!, and even Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter. Dogma may seem like it belongs in the latter of the two categories, especially if you were to believe all the religious groups that protested the film when it came out six years ago, but it actually leans more toward the former. It doesn’t absolutely belong there, either, though; all things considered, Dogma actually straddles the line between the two, never fully taking itself seriously but also never sacrilegiously making fun of its subject matter.

The protagonist of the story is Bethany Sloane (Fiorentino), a woman in her mid-thirties who works in an abortion clinic. She was raised Catholic, but has lately begun losing her faith, unsure if God even exists. She goes to church more out of habit now (again, no pun intended) than as a way to spiritually connect.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin... Hmm, how do I begin to explain this? Well, there are these two characters, Bartleby (Affleck) and Loki (Damon). They look human. In fact, however, they are angels. Exiled angels, to be specific. You see, Loki used to be the Angel of Death. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed? That was Loki. And when the great flood washed away all life save for Noah and his ark’s passengers? That was Loki, too.

Loki’s best friend, Bartleby, felt sorry for the humans being slaughtered, and one day, brought up the subject with Loki of whether murder in the name of God was justified. That night, Loki – very drunk – stormed up to God and threw down his sword, renouncing his position. Loki’s punishment (as well as Bartleby’s, for his role as the instigator) was to forever be exiled from Heaven; banished to, of all places, Wisconsin.

A dogmatic loophole in the Catholic system is that of plenary indulgence. In plain English, that refers to when a church has been given papal sanction to allow people to be forgiven for all their sins by walking through the arches of a church. In this case, a church in Asbury Park, New Jersey is holding a rededication ceremony and offering all those that enter their church a morally clean slate. Loki and Bartleby decide to venture to New Jersey, walk through that church’s arch, and be forgiven by God for their error a few millennia earlier, and thus be allowed back into Heaven.

‘But wait,’ ask those of you up-to-date on your religions. ‘Church law isn’t infallible, because it's written by man.’ While this is true, one of the last things Jesus said to the first pope was that “whatever you hold true on Earth, I shall hold true in Heaven.” So, God would have no choice but to let Bartleby and Loki back into Heaven after they go through the church arches – and after they get killed, of course. (They can’t simply kill themselves, because suicide is a mortal sin, and that would sully their newly cleaned moral slates.)

If all this sounds very religiously heavy to you, relax. All of what I’ve explained is covered very clearly and basically, very early on in the movie, and is merely the catalyst for the plot.

One night, Bethany is awoken by the Metatron (Rickman), who teleports into her bedroom in the middle of the night, in a blaze of flames, only to be doused by a panicked Bethany and her fire extinguisher. The Metatron is the voice of God, and explains to Bethany that she is to be charged with a holy crusade. God needs her help to stop Bartleby and Loki from entering that church. You see, existence, as the Metatron explains to Bethany, functions on the principle that God is infallible; to prove Him wrong would undo reality as we know it and unmake existence entirely. If Bartleby and Loki succeed in their goal, they will unwittingly destroy life, the universe, and everything.

Before departing, he informs Bethany that she will not be alone in her quest. Others will help her. True to his word, as Bethany heads from Illinois to New Jersey in a race to beat the two renegade angels there, she is joined first by two prophets (who, incredibly, end up being Jay and Silent Bob, recurring Kevin Smith characters played by Mewes and Smith himself), then by the omitted 13th apostle, Rufus (Rock), and finally by a muse named Serendipity (Hayek). As well, the whole time that Bethany and her crew are making their way along, a demon named Azrael (Lee, six years prior to his “My Name is Earl” days) helps clear the way for Bartleby and Loki, for reasons and motives not immediately revealed.

This may not instantly sound like the basis for one of the best comedies of the past few decades, yet it is, perhaps paradoxically because it isn’t the sort of thing that would naturally lend itself to comedy. By not playing the jokes with full force, as well, Smith is able to make it even funnier than Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. There’s much humour in telling the story of Brian instead of Jesus, but there’s nowhere to go from there; after the Brian joke has been established, you know they can’t really go any further, which removes a bit of the magic from it. In Dogma, though, Smith lets his sacrilegious jokes only go so far, like in having a thirteenth apostle named Rufus, who claims to have been left out of the Bible because he was black. Such a joke, while being offensive to the extremely stuck-up, leaves a lot of room for further jokes to be even more comedically sacrilegious. That keeps you watching with more interest, because you want to see how much farther things will go and in what ways.

Smith has always been known more for his writing talents than his directorial skills (partly because, early on, he didn’t really have many directorial skills). After slight improvements between Clerks. and Mallrats, and between Mallrats and Chasing Amy, though, Smith makes a phenomenal advance with Dogma from when he last exhibited his eye for a scene in Chasing Amy. This is a beautifully made film, as much a feast for the eyes as for the brain and the ears.

Every cast member is fantastic, from Damon and Affleck’s brotherly angels to George Carlin’s turn as a cardinal. Fiorentino is often overshadowed by her fellow actors, just because they are all funnier than her. As the straight central character, though, she ends up giving a much more powerful performance than any of the other actors, running through a wide range of emotions over the course of the movie.

This movie came out when I was halfway through high school. I had reached an age a few years earlier where I began to really pontificate religion and what I felt about it. I was not raised religiously. I was taught very good morals and principles, and still to this day live my life by many of the same virtues heralded and preached by the various religions, but was not raised under the belief that there was a higher power. When I entered my teenage years and began evaluating things for myself, I came to the position of being an agnostic. I didn’t really agree with the way different religions treated spirituality, but I did believe in spirituality in itself.

By the time I had finished Grade 11, my beliefs had realigned themselves and solidified more, under the belief of atheism. As someone who always believed in science over faith, someone who viewed evolution and the existence of dinosaurs as fact rather than theory, it simply felt like too much of a leap of faith to blindly believe that there was some supreme creator. I had absolutely no problem with people who were able to make that leap of faith; I wasn’t some extreme Marxist, I didn’t think religion was the opiate of the masses. I simply felt that it wasn’t for me.

Then I saw Dogma. More than any proselytisation some people had attempted, Dogma made me question my beliefs. By tackling religion in an accessible manner, devoid of “thee”s and “thou”s and “thine”s, and by not taking itself so seriously as to ostracize non-Catholic viewers, I was more open to listening to what it had to say. If it didn’t have much to say after such a disarming, it would have been a waste, but thankfully, Dogma has the ideas and philosophy behind it to back itself up.

It embraces the belief in the existence of Jesus Christ and in Jesus being the son of God, but is also open enough to raise such questions as whether Jesus was black, whether God could have a female form rather than the bearded caricature exhibited in cartoons like “The Simpsons,” whether Mary actually was a virgin when she gave birth to Christ, and whether Christ actually had some siblings. The movie does not bring up such topics in a sacrilegious way; it is obvious that Smith is not trying to mock Catholicism (he was, and is to this day, a practising Catholic). Rather, it simply has an open mind. Because the Bible is said to be God’s words transcribed via forty different men, the truth is that if God truly does exist and truly did offer the wisdom and morals accounted in the Bible, it is truthfully possible, maybe even likely, that mistakes were made in the transcription. Believing that a book so large and being recorded by so many different people was captured exactly as narrated is a very large leap of faith in itself. All Smith’s screenplay suggests is that, while God’s messages were captured in the Bible, perhaps a few details were incorrectly recorded – and then offers alternate theories and interpretations.

Dogma changed my views. I am no longer strictly an atheist. When it comes down to it, I am not arrogant enough to assume that I know there isn’t a supreme power, because there could be. Some may view my stance as fence-sitting, but I simply don’t believe one way of the other. There are so many things that support religion and so many things that disprove it. Dogma made me realize that it is naive to blindly believe anything. I thus am now not a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, or another religious denomination, but I am not strictly an atheist anymore, either. I don’t actively believe there is a higher power, but nor do I strongly believe that there isn’t. I simply don’t know. All I know is that I live my life in much the same way religions preach and that I am a good person, and beyond that, who’s to say? If nothing else, Dogma taught me that simply accepting something blindly is worse than making a wrong but educated choice.

My point, I guess, is that this is an enjoyable movie, no matter what your stance on religion. It has an intriguing plot (not to mention an original story, which is rare in this day and age), is entertaining, is enlightening, and makes you think. You may chance your mind about certain things after watching it, or you may be more resolute in your beliefs. That doesn’t matter. All that matters, as the movie teaches, is that you believe in something – be that the belief in a higher power, the belief in atheism, or the belief that you simply don’t know what to believe. When it comes to creationism version evolution or religion versus atheism, I don’t know what to believe. One thing I do believe, though, is that Dogma is a brilliant piece of work, a hysterical yet inspirational tale (more hysterical than perhaps this article has properly emphasized or illustrated – I mean, come on, look at the picture to the left of this paragraph), and a movie that everyone should try to find the time to watch.

Best line: “Mary gave birth to Christ without having known a man’s touch, this is true. But she did have a husband. And do you really think he’d have stayed married to her all those years if he wasn’t getting laid? The nature of God and the Virgin Birth – those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility!” Rufus, the 13th Apostle (Chris Rock)

Scene to watch for: Loki enforcing Divine Justice on the boardroom members of Mooby Corp.

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© Chris Luckett 2005