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Review: Dogma (1999)

Dogma (1999)

Directed by: Kevin Smith

Premise: Two angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) exiled on earth discover that a loophole in Catholic theology will allow them to return to Heaven. A mortal woman (Linda Fiorentino) is recruited to stop them from invalidating the will of God and thereby undoing all of creation.  

What Works: Dogma is a Kevin Smith film and part of the writer and director’s View Askewniverse; several of his movies such as Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy feature recurring characters, namely Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) even though the stories themselves are not connected. One of the qualities that distinguishes Kevin Smith’s filmography is the way in which he is able to combine silliness, gross humor, and offbeat characters with sweetness and gravitas. Dogma remains one of Smith’s best films and his most ambitious. Linda Fiorentino plays Bethany, a counselor working in an abortion clinic who is recruited by the Voice of God (Alan Rickman) to stop Bartleby and Loki, outcast angels who have been banned from Heaven. The angels have discovered a loophole in Catholic theology, whereby passing through the archway of a newly renovated Cathedral will allow them to return home. As it’s explained in the movie, all of existence is predicated on the assumption that God is infallible and if his decree is subverted all of existence will be obliterated. Dogma’s combination of theology and comedy and action makes it a very unusual film and its odd premise critiques the bureaucratic nature of organized religion. That critique resulted in Dogma becoming very controversial in 1999, so much so that Kevin Smith was inundated with death threats. However, Dogma is not simply a ribbing of Catholicism in particular or religion in general. There is something more sophisticated at work in this film. Perhaps more than any other major motion picture, Dogma adumbrates the crisis of religion in contemporary American life. This plays out in Bethany and Bartleby and Loki’s stories. All three of them feel forsaken by God. When Bethany is tapped for a religious adventure she is put on a path toward reclaiming it by pairing her faith with a sense of purpose. Things take a darker turn for Bartleby and Loki whose frustration with God manifests itself in increasingly violent ways. This is where Dogma is so unique among religious pictures. Rather than a struggle of good against evil, Dogma about hope and faith in conflict with egotism and impatience.

What Doesn’t: Kevin Smith’s style of storytelling and filmmaking appeals to a particular taste, especially the movies he was making in the 1990s. Smith’s pictures have a lot of pop culture references that are likely to be lost on anyone who was born after 1995. Even though Dogma is arguably the most accessible title in the View Askewniverse it is still very much a Kevin Smith movie and it has a sense of humor that isn’t necessarily going to appeal to a mainstream audience. At two hours and ten minutes, Dogma runs a bit long and it is quite dense. This is one of those fantasy pictures that is built on elaborate rules and the film’s exposition can be overwhelming on its first viewing. The irony of Dogma is that, for as long and as dense as it is, there is a case to be made that the film needs an extended cut. The ending of Dogma suffers from some gaps in the continuity of the action and the climax is literally a deus ex machina conclusion. There is a trove of deleted scenes on the DVD and Blu-ray releases and two key sequences should be reinstated: Bethany’s monologue about her loss of fertility and Azrael’s speech about Hell. These scenes give the protagonist and the antagonist their motivations and cutting the scenes out diminishes the characters and the deeper meaning of the story.

DVD extras: Commentary tracks, deleted scenes, outtakes, storyboards, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Dogma remains one of Kevin Smith’s best films. It is an enjoyable comic fantasy but the silliness and coarse humor belies something quite thoughtful underneath this movie. Dogma deals with the contemporary American religious experience with an empathy and clarity that few films have achieved. 

Episode: #588 (March 27, 2016)