Sunday, January 01, 2006


I've always considered myself a fan of the Kevin Smith film Dogma, with my enjoyment hindered only by one small fact -- I hadn't actually seen it.

That changed last night. Most people might find a funny but provocative movie a little less than exciting for New Year's Eve, but Mrs. MMM and I specialize in offbeat calendar celebrations.

For this film, it was just as well that we watched it over a holiday, because it's just like a big Christmas dinner -- it takes a while to digest.

It wasn't quite what I expected. The buzz about this film suggests an intelligent comedy, which it is. But the plot was more intense -- and a little less satisfying -- than I anticipated. The central threat in the movie is that existence will go extinct if Ben Affleck and Matt Damon go through the gates and "prove" God is fallible. That premise is at odds with the rest of Smith's apparent theology -- no simple rule could govern so much -- and it's plain throughout the film that Smith's "God" is absolutely fallible.

Fortunately, this isn't a fatal flaw. Look past the premise, and Smith has several theological arguments far better than anything you're likely to hear in church or news coverage. Even Beliefnet would struggle to come up with anything this intriguing -- or this complex.

Smith doesn't show sympathy for the devil, but we sympathize with the fallen angels (Affleck and Damon), who take turns as the greater of two evils in some of the better dramatic moments of the film. Even the evil puppetmaster, Azrael (Jason Lee), has an argument to make.

The comic hook is that the good guys aren't traditional good guys. That's how the film was advertised -- Jay and Silent Bob, plus Chris Rock as a wise-cracking apostle. Lots of "f" bombs. Some of the critics fault Smith for this. Check the comments at IMDB, and you'll see plenty of people who dismiss the whole film because he makes fart jokes.

Again, it's not that simple. The characters are transformed as they wrestle with their consciences. Linda Fiorentino does a brilliant job expressing Bethany's desire to do the right thing even as she's skeptical and reluctant in her mission. Jay and Silent Bob, far less grating here than they are in other films, do more than get high and fart. Rock and Alan Rickman, the resonant voice of God, never pretend that the messages they're conveying are simple.

From a theological standpoint, Smith isn't as predictable as you would've thought. (Well, as predictable as I thought -- and I knew I'd like the film.) Sure, he expounds on the expected themes -- the injustice of killing in God's name, the hypocrisy of most organized religions, loving God in spite of his ... er, her ... followers. Those themes may anger some hard-core Vatican types, but they sit well in the Gen X/Gen Y postmodern skepticism crowd. But Smith goes beyond all that. He ponders the very nature of faith and belief. (And, bless his heart, he rips on the utter crapfest of a movie called Con Air.)

For the first hour and change, the tension in the plot kept me from fully enjoying it. I was anxious, and I'm well past the point in my life in which I like to be kept in suspense. (Maybe it's a midlife crisis, but I'm starting to think life is too short to wait for outcomes.) One pivotal scene won me over and ensured that, no matter how many flaws I saw in the film, I would defend it against its critics.

Rickman and Rock have called Fiorentino to intervene and stop Affleck and Damon, and she doesn't understand why. She has to be talked through each stage of her journey. Finally, as the crew is camping out, she's had it. "I'm tired of all this cryptic bullshit!"

Rock tells her something I won't spoil here, but suffice to say it makes her upset. She winds up splashing in some water, only to encounter Rickman. In the most moving part of the film, Rickman tells her that he was the one who had to tell the 12-year-old Jesus that he wasn't going to have a nice normal life. He says Jesus begged him to change reality. It's heartwrenching, and it fits another of Smith's major themes: Being called as a force of good means enduring sacrifice and struggle. (I'd argue Smith accidentally proved his point by enduring nasty criticism from zealots after -- even before -- this film's release.)

Even as this scene pays tribute to self-sacrificing heroes, it lays bare the problem many of us have with religion -- cryptic bullshit. Some may like to argue otherwise, but the Bible isn't a simple instruction manual. Moral choices are hard, and too many people try to influence those choices with disingenuous arguments. And spiritual choices are even harder, as we struggle to reconcile the notion of an all-knowing, all-loving God with all the suffering in the world.

The anxiety I felt in the movie mirrors the anxiety of spiritual and moral life. Who wouldn't love to yell "cut the cryptic bullshit" and have all truth revealed to the whole world? Wouldn't it be great to learn what it all means? If there's some plan for each of us, wouldn't we all like to know?

As I tried to absorb everything in the film, I flipped through a few reviews. The best two were at DVDJournal and At the latter, Jeffrey Wachs nails it: "Though there are well-aimed jabs at the Church, it is clear that Smith embraces the Catholicism he's satirizing." The former points out several of Smith's directorial flaws -- all of which are fair criticisms -- while embracing its strengths, including the unlikely casting of Alanis Morissette as God. (Seriously, she's good, showing off a gift of physical expression no one could have expected.)

Oh, and it's funny, too. Very funny. I'm sure it'll be even funnier when I watch it the second time. Even in the powerful climax, Jay delivers an f-bomb rant that is a perfect reaction to what's gone on. If you don't care about spirituality and feel nothing for the characters, just see it for the jokes.

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