I didn't see this one, either.  Didn't seem to be my type of film.  But Jonathan Harvey saw it, and he seemed like he had a lot of stuff to say about the film.  So he sent me this review.  Check out his other reviews for Deep Blue Sea, Sixth Sense, and Trekkies.


Disappointed by Dogma
A review by Jonathan Harvey

  Although I am far from being sympathetic to the religious right, I find I occasionally dislike the same movies they dislike, though for different reasons. I generally disliked "The Last Temptation of Christ" and I found Jean-Luc Goddard's "Hail, Mary" incomprehensible. I have not seen the mildly notorious film "Priest" nor the play "Corpus Christi", though some of the protest against the latter is clearly based on factual disinformation.

  My basic feeling is that if you are going to attack or parody religion, since you are on touchy ground to begin with you might as well do the best job you can. Communicate a message effectively and speak from a thought-out and coherent point of view, even if it is a comic one. If you are going to offend someone, do it with style, graceful wit, and meaningful purpose. The much ballyhooed "Dogma" does none of these things. I myself do not consider myself a Christian, but I respect it up to a point that I think attacks on religion should be constructive.

  I was particularly prepared to like this film because I think that conservative religious types consistently confuse anti-religious drama with anti-clerical drama.  In fact, Western literature has an long honorable tradition of drama which is anti-clerical, but in no way anti-religious. The publicity attached to "Dogma" leads one to believe this is such a drama. But this is far from clear from the film's contents.

  The most obvious movies to which "Dogma" should be compared are Monty Python's "Life of Brian" and Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits". (The latter had half of Monty Python in its cast and Python's animator as its director, but was not billed as a Python movie.). Both of these are wildly comic parodies of Christian theology, and both are much funnier and much wiser than "Dogma". In fact, both are more accessible to at least some Christians than this film.

  A point of commonality between "Life of Brian" and "Dogma" is that the writers of both movies claim to respect the deeper elements of Christianity, and they are only parodying organized religion i.e. satirizing what Western culture has done with Christianity but not the JC-Man Himself. However, this is vastly more obvious to the uninformed viewer of "Brian" than it is to the uninformed viewer of "Dogma". Consider and contrast the plot-premises. "Brian" centers around a false Messiah named Brian, who doesn't even want to be a Messiah, but due to some freak coincidences a mystique gathers around him which he cannot shake or get rid of. Any intelligent believer can read this as a parody of religious cults. A non-believer can read it as a parody of much religion and also our century's cult of celebrity at the same time. (Look at all the '60s people who thought Bob Dylan was a Messiah, a prospect which terrified Dylan himself.) The plot of "Brian" remains reasonably consistent with Christian teaching (assuming Christians accept the possibility of life on other planets). We get two glimpses of Jesus. In the second, a listener a mile away misunderstands the Sermon on the Mount which is however presented correctly. The only genuinely irreverent moment comes earlier when the 3 Wise Men accidentally give their gifts to Brian, and after realizing their mistake have to assault and pummel Brian's mother to get them back. Not exactly "Amahl and the Night Visitors" but the Bible doesn't really say much about the Magi's journey.

  The plot of "Time Bandits" is also loosely consistent with real Christian teaching, assuming one accepts the possibility of the devil time-traveling into the future, and God having a staff of assistants in the creation of the world who make a few mistakes due to time-pressure. In contrast, "Dogma" makes no sense at all. It is about two rascally angels who want to get back into heaven by taking advantage of a loophole in Catholic dogma by passing through the portals of a church in New Jersey concerning which plenary indulgences are granted to anyone who walks through them on a given day. The first thing that bothers me is that there is no such loophole in Catholic dogma. The Catholic church's grants of forgiveness are supposed to apply to humans, not angels, and the Church *never* grants a plenary indulgence to anyone who is not repentant of their sinful misdeeds no matter how many pilgrimages they make or Hail Marys they say. As such, the central plot premise is centered on a fictitious element of Catholic dogma inconsistent with both the spirit and the letter of actual church law, regardless of what you think of that law.

  The film also plays fast and loose with Catholic teaching on half-a-dozen other points. There is no such thing in Catholic teaching as "angels transubstantiating into humans", for example. As such, the proposed *revisions* to Christian teaching offered up in the film lose their punch, since the presentation of the *standard* teachings is completely goofy. The notion of a suppressed 13th Apostle who is black has definite comic possibilities, but these are lost when the traditional teachings are not presented in a realistic way. Most comics who make fun of Catholicism deal with obvious targets like the issues of eating meat on Fridays, masturbation, Sunday obligations, and so forth. If Kevin Smith had found a fresh way to deal with these very real aspects of Catholic teaching, he might have caught my interest.

  A point of commonality between "Dogma" and "Time Bandits" is that in both stories something is going on which could undo the fabric of creation and unmake the universe. But the way in which this is proposed in "Bandits" stretches the boundaries of Christian teaching without actually breaking them or becoming nonsense. The premise there is that Satan wants to travel ahead in time and learn about computers, and then bring them back to the dawn of creation and defeat God with high-tech. If that seems looney, you can always attribute it to the devil not being entirely wise. Far-fetched, but with a certain crazy logic that works all on its own terms. A mark of good fantasy literature is that you can start out with wildly bizarre premises, but then you need to follow those premises to their logical conclusion given their own inner self-contained logic. "Time Bandits" does this quite well. But in "Dogma" we are asked to believe that if these angels get back into heaven by passing thru these gates (a notion not even remotely possible in actual Catholic teaching) it will undo all creation and existence because it will prove God fallible. This is hard to follow even on the movie's own terms. OK, it will prove the church fallible. I guess that means if God really gave all that authority and control of souls over to the Catholic church, it then by indirection proves God fallible. How does proving God fallible cause creation to self-destruct? We are never given even a hint of explanation.

  Other matters to consider are:  The (anti-?)religious humor in the Python films is relatively kind and gentle, while the humor of "Dogma" is more mean, and really attacks very sacred things in a rather cheap way. The obvious example is the dialogue attacking Mary's perpetual virginity, a doctrine I personally don't believe in, but concerning which the film achieves no over-arching purpose in its attack on it. The actual line of dialogue is "Mary having a virgin birth - now, that's a leap of faith. But a married couple NEVER getting it on. That's suspension of disbelief!" Well, gee, Gandhi and his wife took vows of celibacy (admittedly several years into their marriage). A true secular scientific skeptic really ought to find the virgin birth much harder to believe. It is Smith's obsession with sex combined with his devotion to comic books that causes him to find the latter belief more difficult.

  The claim of Kevin Smith and others that this film is ultimately pro-faith rings a bit hollow to me. The final "redemption" scene (labeled as such by Kevin Smith) contains no genuine moral or spiritual lessons, while I think the Python films have quite a lot to say about the difference between shallow, superficial piety, and strong mature faith. The redemption in "Dogma" consists of bringing God back to life, since God temporarily incarnated (Him/Her)self in an elderly man in New Jersey who went into a coma after an attack. I mean, if this man was God Incarnate, couldn't (S)He repel the attackers? More to the point, the final revival of God is achieved by pure dumb luck, not by any remarkable act of courage, wisdom, or kindness. How the final "redemption" scene then is really "pro-faith" mystifies me. This conclusion does *not* point to any deeper meaning to real faith, but instead relies on pseudo-dogmas as silly and bizarre as the non-dogmas the film claims to be satirizing.

  Finally, a few words about how "Dogma" and "Brian" both use the notorious F-word. "Brian" uses the F-word in a genuinely imaginative and clever way, and thus earns its artistic license to its R-rating. I offer the following dialogue as sample

Brian: I'm not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand?! Honestly!
Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
Brian: What?! Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!
Brian: Now, f*** off!
Arthur: How shall we f*** off, O Lord?

  However, the F-word in "Dogma" is used in childish sexist jokes about two hopelessly horny bums lusting after the female heroine of the film.

  Roger Ebert liked "Dogma", but said that bathroom-monster scene was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the bathroom-monster embodies the spirit of the film as a whole. I simply cannot accept the verdict of other reviewers that this film is as innocuous and "no more mean-spirited" then "Life of Brian". I think such critics are too distant from the subject-matter of these films to know better. (That quote by the way is from the Hollywood Reporter, but I got it from the anti-Dogma web-page of the Catholic League, so thanks Mr. Donaghue.)

  I close mentioning the original advertising tag-line of "Life of Brian". It read "See the movie that's controversial, sacrilegious, and blasphemous. But if that's not playing, see The Life of Brian." Replace "see" with "rent". The moment for that tag-line has finally come.

Agree or disagree with what Jon's got to say? Let me or Jon know.

OTHER MOVIE REVIEWS: Austin Powers (References), Being John Malkovich, Blah Witch Project, Deep Blue Sea, Dogma, Dune, eXistenZ, Iron Giant, The Matrix, The Mummy, Princess Mononoke, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, Smallville, Star Trek IX: Indigestion, Star Wars: The Turgid Menace, Thirteenth Floor, Toy Story 2, Trekkies, Vile Vile West, The World Is Not Enough

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