Dogma: Special Edition
Columbia TriStar Home Video
Starring Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon,
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Review by Mark Bourne
"God saw that it was good and funny."
Genesis 1:31 (unexpurgated)
Independent writer/director Kevin Smith's raunchy yet ultimately intelligent and tender theological bull session, Dogma, has been stoking passions since before its release in 1999. Plenty of its viewers, not just members of Smith's hard-core fan base, love this Oz-like fantasy of Catholic doctrine, fallen angels, horny prophets, God's droll spokesangel, a "Buddy Christ," and an abortion clinic worker who's a distant descendant of Jesus. Or, if they consider it an earnest yet flawed effort, they at least salute both it and Smith.
New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised it as "an obviously devout, enlightened parable... With Dogma, Smith makes a big, gutsy leap into questions of faith and religion. He miraculously emerges with his humor intact and his wings unsinged." USA Today's Susan Wloszczyna wrote, "I personally haven't thought this deeply about the religion of my birth since being confirmed." According to Charles Taylor at Salon.com, "If Dogma can move an old agnostic like me, it can move anybody." And over at ChristianityToday.com, Steve Lansingh ends his affirming review with, "I think (Smith's) intention is to prod audiences to think and search and seek instead of looking to be spoonfed easy answers. And despite his ribbing of Catholicism, I think he points viewers toward the church at the end of the film by depicting the building as the dominion of God. As far as primers for modern American Catholicism go, this one is raucous, naughty, and somewhat scrambled, but it's the only one that has dared to reach out to the Beavis and Butthead set."
At the other end of the appreciation spectrum ... oh my.
Well ahead of Dogma's national opening in theaters, the picture came under a relentless and very public barrage of outraged condemnation by a noisy and tenacious Religious Right group called the Catholic League, who charged Smith with everything from blasphemy to anti-Catholic hate-mongering. The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property distributed fliers saying that Dogma "mocks everything we hold sacred God, the Church, the Mass and Mary's virginity. It condones what we condemn murder, obscenity, violence, profanity, drugs, drunkenness and rebellion!"
Hate mail, including death threats, landed in Smith's lap like fire on Gomorrah. One piece of mail posted on Smith's website, www.viewaskew.com, read: "All that's vile comes from you. You teach hatred and prejudice. You insult Christians, especially Catholics. How Satanic!... Hitler didn't die, you're still doing his hatreds and works. Are you aware you're un-American?... May God judge your terrible acts."
Bethany: "You were martyred?"
Rufus, the 13th Apostle: "That's one way of putting it. Another way of putting it would be to say that I was bludgeoned to death by a huge fucking rock."
Smith's public stoning from supposedly pious fellow Christians who had not even seen the film gave him reason enough to rebuff P.T. Barnum's dictum that there's no such thing as bad publicity. There was concern that theaters wouldn't show Dogma out of fear of reprisal. Smith, a devout Catholic himself, had further trouble when Dogma's distributor, Disney's Miramax, decided that this potato was too hot to handle and the rights wound up at Lions Gate Films (the American Family Association still called for a Disney boycott). At the film's New York Film Festival premiere and elsewhere, sign-wielding protesters marched and chanted outside of theaters screening it.
The press seized the controversy as the story, so Dogma's actual content, never mind its merits or faults as a movie, was overshadowed by the raucous melee. Once in distribution, Dogma's accumulated buzz-hype baggage had propelled audience expectations toward a caustic dissection of the Catholic Church, a mean-spirited pissing on Christianity, or simply a toilet-humor gadfly's superficial anti-establishment middle-finger flip.
Bethany: "What's he like? God?"
Metatron: "Lonely. But funny. He's got a great sense of humor."
Dogma is none of those things. Quite the opposite, actually. So almost everyone's expectations were turned on their ear. Dogma is something else. As its opening disclaimer states, this is "a work of comedic fantasy, not to be taken seriously." It's push-the-envelope coarse, thematically ambitious, and most dangerously self-consciously respectful and thoughtful on matters of faith and religion. This divine comedy thinks highly enough of its audience to blend the sacred with the silly, the profound with the jaw-droppingly profane, the juvenile with Jesus. And instead of summer-blockbuster pacing or Spielbergian directoral finesse, it's a movie driven by Smith's primary strength as a storyteller dialogue. Uh-oh.
Therefore it's hard to find another recent movie that has received such a diverse range of critical opinion, from praising hosannas to, well, more outraged condemnation, secular and otherwise. Even Smith's own fans and they are legion are split over this one. (Then again, ever since he first pinged the cultural radar with Clerks in 1994, Smith's endearingly vocal and steadfast fans have been split over each of his uniquely flavored, deeply personal projects.)
The good news is that the positive reviews outnumbered the negative by roughly 2 to 1, so while Dogma's box office success was modest, it didn't vanish entirely and its popularity has grown on video with new viewers able to give it a fair appraisal without the distracting din of protests and fist-shaking. Columbia TriStar's long-awaited Dogma: Special Edition DVD (following the bare-bones release) provides a first-rate opportunity to not only experience the movie for the first or fourteenth time, but you also get a pardon me shitload of bonus extras that bring you up close and personal with Smith himself and the comic-book catechism that is Dogma. This is why God made the DVD format.
"The passion to tell the story came from my unbridled appreciation for God..."
Dogma stands up favorably alongside other films that look at the thorny subject of Christian basics through non-traditional yet mindful lenses: Monty Python's Life of Brian, of course, and, less obviously, Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary and Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ.
Even more so than those excellent films, though, this can be said about Dogma: It's probably the most reverent, true-to-its-source, theologically honest pro-Christianity movie to hit the screens in a generation, including such offerings as The Omega Code and others on the Christian Coalition's thumbs-up list. Dogma turns on the axle of fundamental Christian historicity. The Virgin Birth really occurred. The boy Jesus was revealed to be the Son of the Almighty (recounted here in a splendid and moving scene), and the adult Messiah was crucified by the very people he was sent to redeem and save. Now he is in Heaven wishing we'd come to see things his way. One of Smith's characters says that God hates it when people refer to Christian "mythology."
More pointedly, it's a movie about the restoration of faith. Through Dogma, Smith shows us what Sunday School teachers and pulpit preachers have been saying for a long time that God loves, forgives, and cares for each individual on a profoundly personal level; that He (or sometimes She) is incomprehensible yet approachable; and that simple faith is all you need to get you through.
Dogma is so steeped in heartfelt Biblical ruminations, in fact, that the people who might have a reason for theological offense aren't Christians or even Catholics in particular, but everyone else.
"...and my predilection toward dick and fart jokes (the former represents how I make it from day to day; the latter represents how I pay my bills)." Kevin Smith
Smith, all of 29 at the time, made an intellectually spirited farce that dares to invite discussion, spotlight holes in "the cloth," and aggressively question the party line even in this country of relative religious tolerance, such can lead you into trouble. Dogma's central tenets are that faith and religion are two very different things, that ideas are more important than beliefs, and that religion, an artificial human construct, is inherently limited and flawed. This screenplay by a former altar boy states flat-out that no denomination has nailed it yet, "and they never will because they're all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn't matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith." Dogma doesn't so much condemn organized religion as question its priorities. Pow!
Smith added day-glo paint to the bulls-eye on his chest by loading Dogma with crude sexual humor, a cartoonish monster made from human excrement, a heretofore unknown black 13th apostle who tells us that Jesus himself is "a brother," and words not sanctioned by most Sunday School teachers (if you have a problem with permutations of "fuck" falling like manna in abundance, you will have a problem with Dogma).
"...but since the Lord has a sense of humor, I always rationalized that, ultimately, He (or She) appreciated it regardless of what a select few of His (or Her) yapping minions maintained. At least, fuck I hope God's got a sense of humor. If not, I'm really, really screwed." KS
Dogma's origins go back to Smith's breakthrough film, Clerks, the first in the View Askew crew's "New Jersey series" that continued with Mallrats, Chasing Amy (his most mature and sure-footed work), and then Dogma, which takes his craft and ambition to their highest level yet. They all exist within the same "askewniverse," with shared references to pop culture (especially the Star Wars movies), actors, and characters. To confuse matters a bit, Smith's recurring actors, such as Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, don't always play the same characters from film to film.
His two most famous characters, the R2-D2 and C-3PO of his benevolent empire, remain constant throughout the series: gotta-get-laid stoner Jay (Jason Mewes) and his mostly-mute "hetero lifemate" Silent Bob (Smith). Starting out as merely two small-part dope dealers in Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob have become more prominent from movie to movie, with Silent Bob providing the keystone speech in Chasing Amy, and both cast as two unwitting prophets of literally cosmic importance in Dogma.
"You people! If it hasn't been made into a movie, it's not worth knowing about, is that it?" Metatron
The plot? Think road movie as scripted by Dante Alighieri collaborating with Mel Brooks. If you're a fan of Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, you're already tuned in. A long-time Gaiman fan, Smith's story and characters would be right at home in the Sandman graphic novel universe, and Gaiman is in Smith's impressive list of influences at the end of the closing credits.
(Warning: here be spoilers....)
Millennia ago, the Angel of Death, Loki (Matt Damon) and his pal Bartleby (Ben Affleck), committed a heavenly faux pas and were cast out of Heaven, banished to Earth. Wisconsin, specifically. Now a mysterious someone has sent them a clue to a loophole in Catholic dogma that would allow them re-entry into Heaven. To accomplish this, Loki and Bartleby must trek to New Jersey and pass through the entrance arch of a particular cathedral on a particular day. Trouble is, other celestial authorities are aware that if the pair were to accomplish their goal, all of creation would be short-circuited and blink out of existence. So while the two fallen angels head to the Garden State, another faction is assembled to stop them.
In a fiery blaze, God's personal speaker, the seraphim Metatron (Alan Rickman, in a marvelously dry turn) appears in the Illinois bedroom of Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic worker and life-long Catholic who still attends Mass out of rote routine yet has lost her faith. She has long since given up hope that her prayers are being heard on the other end. Despite a bumpy welcome involving a fire extinguisher and a fish, Metatron convinces Bethany that she has been chosen for a Holy crusade: to prevent two angels from walking through that cathedral archway in New Jersey, and thus save all existence. She is to be aided on her journey by two prophets.
Of course, the prophets turn out to be Jay and Silent Bob, who rescue her from the Stygian Triplets, three roller-hockey teen demons under the command of bitter demon Azrael (Jason Lee). Bethany's yellow brick road also leads her to Rufus, the 13th Apostle (Chris Rock), who has a 2000-year-old gripe with being edited out of the Bible because he was black, and the sexy stripper Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse whose inspiration was responsible for nineteen of the twenty top-grossing films of all time not Home Alone, 'cuz "somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of shit."
Oh yeah an old man is beaten near to death on a New Jersey boardwalk, and hip Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) is unveiling the Holy Mother Church's PR plan to get jiggy with the modern era via the "Catholicism Wow!" campaign. The new sigil replacing that depressing crucifix? "Buddy Christ," all goofy winks and thumbs-up feel-good marketeering. Though small parts, both the old man and Cardinal Glick are end points of Bethany's adventure.
As Loki and Bartleby return to the good ol' days of wrathful vengeance and laying waste to sinners (giving Dogma its brutally violent moments), and after encounters with Azrael and a Gologothan Shit Demon (junior high scatological humor incarnate), the two plot threads converge on a train. The screws tighten further when it turns out that Bethany is the Last Scion, the only living blood descendant of Jesus by way of his siblings.
(Siblings? Okay, I hear you. Though Smith's plot pieces are noncanonical, he's no slouch when it comes to Christian arcana. The notion that Jesus had earthly siblings is supported by Biblical interpretation and long-standing scholarship. According to the film's ChristianityToday.com review, a black man named Rufus does appear in Mark 15:21 "He was probably a disciple, since Mark's mention of him by name only implies the early church's familiarity with him, although chances are he wasn't one of Jesus' inner circle, as the film suggests." And enter "Metatron" plus "angel" into Google.com and see what you get.)
Theological exegesis happens. All parties reach the New Jersey cathedral. Confronted with the realization that human beings have a special place in God's eye that even the angels never attained, Bartleby snaps and Loki is powerless to stop his bloodlust. Angelic carnage of the kind not seen since the Old Testament ensues. Thanks to quick thinking spurred by Jay's assurance that, with the Apocalypse only moments away, now Bethany will fuck him, the Last Scion literally saves the entirety of divine creation. God (Alanis Morisette, in a sublime masterstroke) steps in and... well, let's just say the old gal really does have a sense of humor.
"You know, fuck you, man, any moron with a pack of matches can start a fire. Raining down sulfur is like an endurance trial. Mass genocide is the most exhausting practice one can engage in. Next to soccer." Loki
The cast of Dogma is uniformly strong, even if a tad unpolished from time to time. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon give on-target performances. They are clearly having a fine fun time and play off each other well not surprising from two long-time friends and colleagues. (In the commentary track here, Affleck tells us that he fell in love with Dogma's screenplay and that this is the movie he's most proud of.) Chris Rock plays Rufus exactly the way you'd expect Chris Rock to (sharp, funny, smart-ass), and Salma Hayek gets a chance to exercise some wobbly yet unforced comic muscles (not to mention her better-known musculature). Jason Lee, dapper in seersucker suit and horns, is appropriately oily as a manipulative demon with understandable reasons for pulling the cosmic strings. A god among men, George Carlin is always worth watching, though casting him as Cardinal Glick obviously tips the movie's ideological hand. As the droll celestial front-man, Metatron, Alan Rickman is the stand-out that adds a tequila shot of class to this chiefly inbred cast. As Bethany, Linda Fiorentino grounds Smith's spiritually lost hero in the world-weary here-and-now. She provides our earthy counterpoint to the fantastical goings on, and becomes our voice of disbelief, struggle, and eventual affirmation.
Jason Mewes and Smith are, as always, Jay and Silent Bob. If you already know them, I don't need to say more. If you don't, nothing I say here, beyond that these may be Mewes' finest two hours, would make much difference.
Two cameos are worth noting: Bud Cort is all but invisible in his mightily important role, and Janeane Garofalo as usual isn't on screen nearly enough. (In one of this DVD's two commentary tracks, Smith says he wishes he'd cast Garofalo as Bethany.)
Alanis Morrisette as God? Yep. Seems that some folks find this reason enough to bash the movie, which is just absurd. Because my musical interests have carved an Alanis-shaped gap in my cultural awareness, my primary exposure to her in any medium is through this movie. So I can say without bias in any direction that as an actress the petite Canadian is just dandy as The Maker of the Universe. Credit here really goes to Smith, who wrote the part not just as a small non-speaking role, but directed it as a human manifestation of a deity who is ethereal, kind, efficient in the tasks of Divine Justice, and still has the ability to simply smell the flowers and play in His/Her own handiwork. After doing what needs to be done, She turns a lazy handstand to reveal baggy boxer shorts, and it's exactly right. It's a sweet, balanced capper to the heady happenings beforehand, potent and moving, and perhaps the best screen evocation of God since Rex Ingram's "De Lawd" in 1936's The Green Pastures.
Bethany: "May I ask what brought you here?"
Jay: "Some fuck named John Hughes."
As much as I love this film, I gotta say it: Dogma is messy. Smith hasn't won accolades for being stylish, artful, or innovative as a director. His straight-ahead, one-camera technique isn't flashy, but it is efficient and functional. He employs no tricks beyond the standard film school curriculum. His movies' editing, pacing, and flow are occasionally ragged, and Dogma is no exception. Hands down, his strongest scenes are the small, intimate ones, so when the story calls for large-scale action and intensity (the climactic cathedral scene, for instance), the tone falters as if the movie is uncertain what it's supposed to be doing. Still, you can't fault the director for his ambition or his passion, and Smith refuses to rely on the crutch of a pat approach to his material. He wasn't afraid to aim big, and even when his aim was just beyond his reach we still receive the pleasure of the attempt. We're seeing the early work of an increasingly skilled filmmaker providing, of course, he doesn't let his predilection toward dick and fart jokes get the better of him.
Aside from a set of balls bigger than either Farrelly Brother's head, Smith's greater strengths lie in his writing. While there are plenty of competent directors working out there, there are way too few writers with Smith's ear for character, the well-turned phrase, the meaningful soliloquy, and the laugh-your-ass-off throwaway line, often all packed within the same scene. He has been criticized for stopping his storytelling cold so that his characters can make Kevin Smith speeches, which is like slamming Quentin Tarantino for using all those noisy gunshots. Smith is one of the few popular filmmakers, industry or indie, who writes screenplays because he has something to say. He has matured professionally since Clerks (which he has called overpraised, and I agree). Since Chasing Amy he has demonstrated that he's not afraid to use his films to explore outré ideas silly, salacious, or somber and invite you into his dorm room for brews, a bong hit, and 2 AM discourse about male-female relationships or the nature of God or whether angels have genitals. Then someone farts and the conversation takes another turn.
The danger, of course, is that this leaves Smith vulnerable to criticism from those who happen to not be personally aligned with what he's saying. Couple this with critics who confuse content and technique, and you get a writer/director who has attracted an unwarranted amount of detractors. Conversely, he's also garnered a devoted fan base that would make most filmmakers his age sell their souls to Mooby the Cow (see the movie) to have.
Serendipity: "I have issues with anyone who treats faith as a burden instead of a blessing. You people don't celebrate your faith. You mourn it."
Sure, Dogma is often juvenile on a naughty-school-boy level, just as all of Smith's films have been. But as with Chasing Amy there's more actual chewable content here than in a summer full of big-budget flicks combined (not to mention the entire raft of Bible-based apocalyptic millennial mushes that dogged us into this new century).
It doesn't matter whether you buy into Dogma's tenets. Kevin Smith's Truth may not be the "Truth." It may not be your Truth. But if that gets in your way you're missing the point entirely. Whether he's able to continue his trend of blending dick and fart jokes with thoughtful introspection and that may depend on whether the bottom-line-driven studios let him get away with it again remains to be seen. Now that Smith's wrapping up the New Jersey series in what's reported to be an apocalypse of self-referential deconstruction, I'm curious and anxious to see where he goes from here.
For Christ's sake, what about the DVD?
Columbia TriStar's two-disc Dogma: Special Edition more than adequately replaces the bare-bones disc rushed to vendors in May 2000. This substantial upgrade is one of the best DVD packages on the street. Informal and good-natured, Smith is openly communicative and accessible to his fans (take a good tour through ViewAskew.com sometime), and this DVD is clearly aimed at maintaining that relationship.
A rundown of features:
Digitally mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and anamorphic video (2.35:1). Both sound and image are as clean and sharp as you could ask for. The 5.1 surround isn't used gratuitously, providing mainly ambient effects, though it occasionally sports some cool separations engineered by the fine folks at Skywalker Sound. The picture is pristine with strong color, fine definition, no signs of digital artifacting, and almost no original print wear.
A "technical" audio commentary by Smith, producer Scott Mosier, and View Askew "historian" Vincent Pereira. This is the track for film school students and others interested in the nuts and bolts of movie-making. Smith dives into what his job as the director from scene to scene involved, and with Mosier and Pereira he illuminates the day-to-day technique and art of such a grueling process, underlining choices that had to be made for practical or esthetic concerns.
Audio commentary by Smith, Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Mosier, and Pereira. Chatty, way casual, and informative, this is the track for those of us who just want to have these guys over for a kegger. A genial joe like the rest of us, Smith comes across as unpretentious and self-deprecating. He has the humility of a monk (a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed monk, don't you know) and dishes out praise for his entire cast and crew. When the "Buddy Christ" icon pops up, press your Enter button to activate a pair of picture-in-picture insets showing the gang in the sound studio recording the track. (Note: roughly a half-dozen times while the guys are talking, references to Buena Vista, Disney, Miramax, and Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein are
beeeeeepedout of the track.)
One hundred minutes of deleted scenes with View Askew crew intros. God bless DVD. Here we have a separate movie's worth of scenes cut from the final edit for reasons ranging from simple running time to, well, as Smith says a time or two here, they were shit. It's a shame some of these scenes didn't make the final cut, Jason Lee's expanded Azrael backstory scene in particular. Smith and others introduce the clips and Smith introduces us to his wife Jennifer and baby daughter Harley Quinn (fans of Batman: The Animated Series take note). And the menu's cool too.
Cast and crew outtakes. Thirteen minutes of fucked-up lines, crack-ups, boom mikes to the head, and Affleck and Damon demonstrating why Smith doesn't like ad-libbing.
Storyboards from three major scenes. The Mooby Sequence, Triplet Attack Sequence, and No Man (the shit demon) Attack Sequence are laid out in click-through pre-shoot planning graphics. Compare and contrast!
Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash spot. Like one of those late-night home-grown TV ads for Smith's comic book shop and View Askew merchandise emporium at 35 Broad Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Starring Smith and Mewes. Commercial opportunism at its best. Next time I'm in Red Bank, N.J....
Saints and Sinners talent files. Bios and filmographies for Smith, Affleck, Damon, Fiorentino, Rock, Rickman, Lee, Hayek, and Mewes, with a little awkward navigation.
The original theatrical trailer. De rigueur. In full-screen mono.
In the Beginning: The Story of Dogma. Smith gives us his low-down in this eight-page production notes pull-out.
The "Judge Not: In Defense of Dogma" documentary is not on board here in spite of prior claims. Seems that The Mouse had issues.
Special props go to the clever menus, which include pop-up skewerings of the God-bothering blue-nosed wowsers who decried Dogma as a one-way ticket on that Hell-bound train; to the product packaging's "Catholicism Wow!" campaign pieces; and to the keep-case disguised as a leather-bound Bible. Now that's comedy.Mark Bourne
- Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Languages: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), plus English, French, and Spanish in Dolby 2.0 surround
- Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
- "Technical" audio commentary
- Audio commentary by Smith, Mosier, Pereira, Ben Affleck, and Jason Lee
- 100 minutes of deleted scenes
- Cast and crew outtakes
- Storyboards from three major scenes
- Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash spot
- Saints and Sinners talent files
- In the Beginning: The Story of Dogma production notes pull-out
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