HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: Dogma

1999 Movie-versaries: Dogma

1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix’s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with writer Matthew Widdis, looking back on what might be Kevin Smith’s magnum opus Dogma.

In his 20s, New Jersey native and independent film then-wunderkind, Kevin Smith started to become disillusioned with his Catholic faith. Upon speaking to a priest, he was told that faith was, “like liquid poured into a shot glass,” for a child but that, “as we get older, the glass gets bigger,” and more knowledge is required to satisfy the adult sensibilities. Smith went on a spiritual journey by reading various Christian and other religious texts. Although not fully satisfied, he was thoroughly fascinated and turned yet another personal journey into a film set in his View Askew-niverse, Dogma.

Like Kevin Smith was, our main character, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), is uninspired at her Illinois church’s mass and yearns for her former connection to faith.  After her weekly offering is given from her paycheck as a Planned Parenthood counselor, a second round of donations is solicited to keep comatose “John Doe Jersey” from being taken off life support. Equally frustrated are two renegade angels, Bartleby and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, respectively), banished from heaven for all time by The Almighty for insubordination. They’ve been stuck in Wisconsin since biblical times, but recently found a loophole: a papal decree will give anyone walking through the doors of a Red Bank, New Jersey church a morally “clean slate.”

Bethany is visited by The Metatron (Alan Rickman), the voice of God, who explains that, by undoing God’s decree, Bartleby and Loki will disprove omnipotence and thusly, undo all of creation. The Metatron tasks her with stopping them and a reluctant Bethany is joined by “prophets,” Jay & Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith, respectively), hitchhiking their way back home. They are sent help in the form of Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th apostle left out of The Bible for being black and Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a former muse of creativity-turned-stripper. Loki and Bartleby, meanwhile, find an uneasy ally in Azrael, a “freaking demon” from the pits of hell played by Jason Lee.  From there, hilarity ensues in the form of in-depth theological discussions with a few murders and giant shit monsters thrown in.

Elephant in the room time (and no big surprise): yes, Dogma has a very irreverent take on religion and Catholicism in particular. So much so that, while The Vatican had no official response, the activist group, Catholic League, declared it “blasphemy” and its release was delayed in several countries after organized protests. It depicts a deity more concerned with skee-ball than running the universe and a clergyman (George Carlin) more interested in his golf game and marketing the new “Buddy Christ” figurines to increase church coffers than to tend to his flock. It routinely questions the morality and justice of the Old Testament, New Testament, and our modern world.

But it also asks us to find the answers to those questions, in, of, and for ourselves. It’s not a hit-piece on belief, religion, or even the Catholic Church.  Whether by design or just law of averages, Smith and roughly half the cast were raised Catholic if not active at the time of the Dogma’s release and maybe that helped the conflicted affection it holds for faith. When Serendipity tells Bethany that, “You [Catholics] don’t celebrate your faith. You mourn it,” it’s a moment that most CCD grads will have to admit rings true and, if those in prayer are truly just talking to ourselves, then we (Bethany included) find we have just as much to answer for as any higher power. Paradoxes like this abound in the clever script, with instances where euthanasia provides salvation, supernatural beings envy the power of everyday people, and the wrath of God is shown to be a merciful and loving act. Even when, finally, face-to-face with the divine, the frustrated Bethany abandons her pain to ask for purpose from her creator… and receives an answer she can’t understand, she still finds solace and love in it.

In the time since Dogma, the star-studded cast has seen highs and lows. Jason “Jay” Mewes has continued to act in Kevin Smith’s movies, but took a sabbatical when his substance abuse problems grew so bad that he was fired from Smith’s New Jersey comic book shop. Kevin Smith has directed mostly his own screenplays (aside from his personal Vietnam, Cop Out) and, after weight gain/loss that once saw him removed from an airplane, has adopted a health-conscious vegan lifestyle. Of course, Mewes and Smith have reunited for a live tour promoting the release of their new film Jay & Silent Bob Reboot.

Chris Rock was drawn to Kevin Smith’s work after watching Chasing Amy and became a full-fledged mega-star shortly after as comedian, actor, writer, director and producer in everything from his autobiographical sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris to the documentary Good Hair. Affleck and Damon continued to collaborate on View Askew between stints as Jason Bourne and freaking Batman while churning out Oscar fare like Gone Girl and Invictus. Still drop-dead gorgeous at 53-years-old, Salma Hayek was able to shed her sex symbol status for the 2002 biopic, Frida. Dogma was the last big project for Linda Fiorentino and her career has been in a standstill since her 2009 implication in compromising FBI proceedings against notorious Hollywood fixer, Anthony Pellicano.

Alan Rickman, now known to an entire generation as Harry Potter’s Severus Snape, sadly left us in 2016.  Legendary comedian, George Carlin, likely had no qualms whatsoever in portraying the pompous Cardinal Glick as he continued to not only lambaste religion along with virtually every other facet of society in his stand up and his writings up until his death in 2008, but returned to work with Kevin Smith in future films. Pro skateboarder-turned-actor, Jason Lee, has turned in acclaimed performances in films like Almost Famous and four seasons of TV’s My Name is Earl, along with family fare such as The Incredibles and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

The Catholic church itself has seen plenty of changes since the release of Dogma too. With the loss of the popular Pope John Paul II in 2005, he was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI. A relentless pursuer of the sexual abusers uncovered within the clergy and those who conspired to hide them, his more conservative views failed to connect with many inside and outside the faith. Benedict XVI retired (a rare thing in the papacy) in 2013. He was succeeded by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit and first from the Americas to be elected pope, who has endeared himself to many with his apologies for past atrocities endorsed or permitted by the church as well as his openly liberal viewpoints in both church and secular matters.

The questions that Kevin Smith asked himself through Bethany remains for many. In interviews over the past twenty years, he and various cast members have said that they are no longer religious or, at least, less so than in 1999. Polls show that religious identity is waning in most Western nations, whereas church/temple attendance is actively tumbling. Some have gone into the increasingly popular “spiritual-but-not-religious” camp in embracing all truths and traditions.

Others have doubled down on religion not just as personal truth but as a reliable means of lifestyle and community. Those who have walked away from faith or even just loosened their grip, have found comparative benefits in everything from fandom, to political causes, to academic interests. Each of these options carries their own set of rules and customs, their own dogmas, and whether it be a faith, a social movement, or a sports team, let’s try to be on guard against zeal and remember that we’re all only human and what a gift that is.

Dogma is available on DVD.


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