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The Damned

With Alanis Morrisette as God and Chris Rock as an angel, “Dogma” director Kevin Smith has sparked a Holy War

BYLINE: Robert K. Elder
Published in Gear magazine,
December 1999

“God is dead,” declared Friedrich Nietzsche, a proclamation that’s caused a theological shooting match that has lasted for the better part of the 20th Century. But in contradicting the crusty Prussian philosopher, “Chasing Amy” writer/director Kevin Smith has found himself in religious crossfire of his own with his new comedy “Dogma.”

Not only is the Big Guy not dead, but he’s a woman––and Canadian, played in cameo by Alanis Morrisette. Add to that Rufus (Chris Rock), the black 13th Apostle kept out of the Bible for political reasons, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a faith-doubting descendant of Christ who works as an abortion counselor, and a detailed discourse about the sex life of Joseph and Mary... and you have a formula for the Catholic League to raise Holy Hell––and fodder for the most intense religiously-geared media fight this side of Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Scorcese’s doubting savior and Brooklyn-bred, red-headed Judas give way, “Dogma” has two smite-happy rogue angels (played by smite-happy rogue actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) trying to slip back into heaven on a technicality. If they succeed, the duo will unknowingly set off a cosmic domino effect that will prove the Almighty fallible, whereupon the universe gets another Big Bang. What follows is essentially a theological road movie, in which Bethany, Rufus, and two small town drug dealers (the omnipresent Jay and Silent Bob, Smith’s alter-ego) must travel from Purgatory (Wisconsin) to Hell (New Jersey) to save Heaven and Earth. Along the way the quartet have run into the Versace-wearing Voice of God (Alan Rickman), a reform-minded Cardinal (George Carlin), muse-turned-stripper (Salma Hayek), and demon who’s full of shit (literally).

Oh yeah, and Jesus is black. “Nigga owes me $12 bucks,” says Rufus.

While William Donahue and his Catholic League have painted Smith as a modern day Martin Luther, “Dogma” is hardly Smith’s 95 Theses. Quite the contrary, “Dogma” is religious reverence expressed in Smith’s own brand of complete irreverence. The film’s pro-faith stance led one early critic to call it “preachy.” But critics aside, “Dogma” represents a striking departure for director Smith, a colorful (and at times vulgar) exploration and confirmation of his own religious beliefs. But Donahue and his ilk, based on their reading of an early script posted on the internet, feel otherwise.

“So we say ‘fuck’ a lot in the movies, does that mean I can‘t know Christ?” says Smith in his smoke-filled monotone, conspicuously free of irony. “It’s language, big deal. Sometimes you have to take a moral point and dress it up in dick and fart jokes, and then the audience doesn’t feel preached to. Once the laughter subsides, you’re left with the thought at the center of it.”

Instead, Smith finds himself in the center. And it not just language to which Donahue objects. He contends the film is outright blasphemous in its depiction of Catholicism and the Bible. This past year, the Catholic League declared war on Smith and “Dogma,” casting Smith in the role of angry heretic and Miramax as irresponsible studio. While Smith has not yet become the American Salman Rushdie, the pressure turned “Dogma” into a Hollywood hot potato. Miramax studio heads Harvey and Bob Weinstein personally bought the film outright from Disney (Miramax’s parent company) for a reported $12 million. Disney had already suffered a bent halo from Miramax’s ill-conceived Good Friday release of 1994’s gay-themed “Priest” and was again fielding threats of boycotts and picket lines at themeparks.

What followed was a precarious search for a distributor, which ended in September with Lions Gate Films, the risk-taking independent company that took on “Lolita” and last year’s “God’s and Monsters.” Since the movie was picked up, the film’s website (www.dogma.com) has received an unholy number of hate letters, including death threats to Smith and the Weinstein Bros. “Never underestimate the prickly nature of Christianity,” says Matt Wagner, best known for his “Grendel” and “Mage” comics. Smith’s friend and fellow comic book creator sees a tragic hypocrisy at the center of the controversy. “It’s a philosophy that might preach a loving tolerance, but only rarely practices it. Which is sad, because the film’s underlying theme is one of deep reverence for God and all things spiritual, even down to adopting Christian mythology as its basis for reality.”

A practicing Catholic and former alter boy, Smith wrote “Dogma” at a time when his own faith was in question. Even though the film was written when “Clerks” was making waves, Smith held off making what is most personal film until he had more experience as a director. With the mainstream misfire “Mall Rats” behind him and the rebound success of “Chasing Amy” behind him, Smith felt ready to undertake the project of committing to film his exploration of faith. “Even the most devout disciple is allowed to, or rather is supposed to question,” Smith says. “Christ definitely was a teacher, but he wasn’t the kind of teacher that said,‘Shut up and do it.’ He would talk about itŠthere was discourse there. You can’t get ideas across like that unless they are open for discussion.”

Smith says that his personal journey was a conformation, not a controdiction, of his religion. “To honor divinity, one has to investigate. One has to be a bit rigorous in something that is so completely hard to defend to someone who doesn’t have the faith,” Smith says. “In order to do that, you really have to investigate and give a more personal response, rather than a rote response from the Bible. The unexamined life isn’t worth living, is it?”

But Smith’s pious buffalo stance and the Catholic League’s inability to distinguish religious fable from theological farce, has left the two sides in a stand off may only be decided at the box office. While Smith says he could have done without the controversy––even with the ensuing publicity––he still counts himself among the faithful. “At the end of the day, you make a movie––anyone can do it. It doesn’t prepare you for what happens afterwards,” Smith says. “I think religion prepares you for that, gives you answers and a sense of peace in a very fractured world.”

“And a very cynical world at that,” Smith adds.