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Controversy always seem to surround films that dare to deal with religion in any manner other than complete reverence. Remember all the unnecessary fuss over Monty Pythons Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ?
Kevin Smiths fourth feature Dogma goes further than those in terms of comedy vulgarity and reinvention of Bible lore but is nowhere near as successful as either because the Clerks director gets bogged down with his own clever ideas and mercilessly smart metaphysical contemplations in this Fantasy assault on the Roman Catholic Church.
Put simply, Smith tries to do too much in this unholy mess charting the latest battle in the eternal war between Good and Evil and the scattershot result is uneven to a distracting degree, far too long and often borderline boring as it belabours its barbed points. Yet, strangely enough, basically its a remarkably thought-provoking and pro-faith polemic rather than being a cynical exercise in slacker sacrilege.
So the blasphemy rumpus it has caused in certain right wing religious circles (causing Disney to virtually disown it) is hard to understand in overall context. As Smith points out in the very amusing opening disclaimer, God must have a sense of humour or what else is our earthly existence all about?
Linda Fiorentino goes from The Last Seduction to being the Last Scion in Smiths bumpy ride through the Old and New Testaments. She plays Bethany, an abortion clinic worker, who is experiencing a crisis of faith thanks to a divorce over her inability to bear children. What she doesnt know is that shes the last distant relation of Jesus Christ himself and its her destiny to save all of existence by stopping two renegade fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), putting into operation a plan to re-enter heaven and prove Gods fallibility.
Their Paradise Regained strategy involves passing under an arch at a New Jersey church currently involved in giving Catholicism a new trendy image thanks to Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) and his idea of overhauling the crucifix for a more hip Buddy Christ statue.
On the journey to halt the angels inevitable killing spree thats a part of their deity-defying mission, Bethany gets help from two disguised prophets (Jason Mewes and director Smith), a black apostle left out of the Last Supper story because of racism (Chris Rock), a muse-turned-exotic dancer (Salma Hayek) and a good, if rather disgruntled, angel (Alan Rickman). Along the way they must also deal with the satanic Azrael (Jason Lee) and his roller-blading demonic acolytes who want Loki and Bartleby to succeed so their own Hellish reality will vanish.
The apocalyptic finale is an almighty clash of sex gags, clipped angel wings, bloody slaughter, touching redemption and the appearance of God Herself. But the lengthy lead up to this impressive special effects drenched set piece does rather test the patience despite Smith indulging in some very funny religious rhetoric and posing tough revelatory questions about the meaning of life even if he does tend to go for the more obvious targets.
Once more its hooray for the ever-reliable Linda Fiorentino who gives Dogma a more solid base than it deserves. You believe Bethanys struggle with her faith and eventual salvation thanks to Fiorentinos sincerely nuanced reading of the awkward part.
Otherwise the decidedly off-kilter casting causes its own problems. What to make of Alan Rickmans Cockney angel by way of Frankie Howerd, for example? Or Ben Affleck and Matt Damon who really dont seem to know what theyve got themselves into? No such reservations over Jason Mewes though who is consistently brilliant and hilarious as the Do anything for a shag clueless prophet Jay.
Cut by 10 minutes since its Cannes début earlier this year, Dogma is still way too long for its own good. Further trimming would have made Smiths self-mocking argument that the Catholic religion has lost its way because of over-reliance on corrupt ceremony and outmoded ideas rather the purity of belief in fundamental ideology even more potent. But its intermittent brilliance and poignancy, plus all the eye-opening Fantasy elements, make it enough of an inspiration despite the lingering feeling of ultimate disappointment.
|Read Alan Jones'
Sleepy Hollow The Astronauts Wife and The World is not Enough in Starburst #257