This satirical religious fantasy generated quite a bit of controversy on the festival circuit. Whether or not that was intentional on the part of writer-director Kevin Smith (probably not), it gained attention and helped the film reach a wider audience than the cult of fans who knew Smith from his previous films (CLERKS, MALLRATS). The interesting thing about the controversy is how groundless it is. There is a certain farcical quality to Smith’s handling of the material, but there is nothing blasphemous. Smith reserves his most scathing satire for human institutions; nothing is said to question the glory of the Divine. The true target of the film is not religion but religious dogma, and while he skewers narrow-minded belief, he evinces a complete, almost conservative religious faith of his own.
A pair of angels who have fallen from God’s grace, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), are looking a way back into heaven. They get their chance when Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) offers a plenary indulgence to increase attendance in his church. Traveling to take advantage of this indulgence, which will wipe their souls clean, the angels make some diversions to visit their wrath on human sinners. What they do not realize is that they are playing into the hands of the Devil, who wants them to succeed because undermining God’s plan will unravel the fabric of all creation. A counter-force appears in the form of the Voice of God (Alan Rickman), who enlists the aid of a lapsed Catholic (Linda Fiorentino). Along the way, she is joined by the familiar Jay and Silent Bob characters, plus a thirteenth apostle (Chris Rock), who was written out of the New Testament because he’s black.
Smith’s screenplay assumes that the basic tenants of Catholicism are true and binding, and plays around with the kind of logical contradictions that arise when trying to answer the question of what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. Smith borrows mythological elements from other belief systems: Loki is a Trickster character from Norse mythology, known to fans of Wagner’s “Ring” operas. Salma Hayek plays a muse who inspired the Bible and nineteen of the top twenty grossing films of all time (Home Alone only made it courtesy of a deal with the Devil). Bartleby comes not from mythology but fiction: the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville (although Smith’s point, if he has one, is elusive).
Smith combines these elements into a hilarious spoof that buttresses rather than undermines faith. When Loki and Bartleby decimate a corporate behemoth named Mooby (think what would happen if MacDonald’s and Disneyland mated), there is a mixture of suspense and nervous laughter, but the film seems to endorse Loki’s assertion that the company mascot is a false idol, suggesting that the punishment he meets out (for personal as well as corporate sins) is justified.
This is not the work of a true iconoclast. Having bashed capitalism and dogma, Smith offers hallelujahs of faith. Unfortunately, it is easier to tear something down than to build it up, and Smith stumbles when he tries to inspire, offering only vague platitudes: flexible ideas are better than belief, which is entrenched; the fact of faith is more important than its specific nature; etc.
As a piece of film-making, DOGMA is is not a widescreen extravaganza, nor is it particularly innovative. Smith’s strength is as a writer; in the director’s chair, he handles the actors well and captures their performances on camera, but his visual style is more servicabel than visionary (as he himself is prone to admit). He does a competent job with dialogue scenes, but he sometimes comes up short with the big visual moment, such as the the demonic skateboarders, who fail to intimidate as much as they should. At least he has the good judgment to delete scenes that do not work so well (such as the last-reel fight between Silent Bob and the Golgotham, seen as a bonus feature on disc).
G.K. Chesterton (who wrote the entertaining Father Brown mysteries) advanced the idea that satire implies reverence, because there could be no satire unless there was an accepted standard that had not been met; the failure, not the standard, was the true target. Whether one accepts Chesterton’s assertion as universally true, it seems to hold in the case of Dogma.
On DVD, DOGMA was originally released in a single-disc presentation, with a fullscreen transfer on one side and a letterboxed version on the other. In this case, the letterbox version actually shows less picture information, merely cropping off the top and bottom of the frame. There was a Dolby 5.1 English soundtrack, a French language track, plus English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The minimal bonus features included a trailer and talent files. The release of this version seems to have been a marketing ploy to double up revenues from fans; the two-disc special edition that arrived a year later featured an audio commentary that had clearly been recorded the previous year, in time for the first DVD release.
The Special Edition contains an eight-page booklet, titled “Light of the World,” which includes an essay by Kevin Smith on the making of the film, plus some advertising art spoofs seen in the movie, and a list of chapter stops.
Disc One of the Special Edition announces itself with some flashy interactive menues that begin by fast-forwarding through the Bible. On the main menu (backed by a heavenly synth choir), the film’s Buddy Jesus figure offers you options to “Play Movie” or “Don’t Play Movie.” If you don’t make a selection quickly enough, one of the thumbnail buttons starts up automatically, and “Mrs. Harriet Wise” offers her opinion on how offensive and sick the film is. Harriet shows up elsewhere, asking “Sinner, how can you live with yourself?” when you opt to actually play the movie.
The audio set-up offers English 2-channel Dolby Surround sound and English 5.1 Dolby Digital, plus French and Spanish language tracks. There are options for English, French, and Spanish subtitles. There are two audio commentaries: “Cast and Crew” and “Technical.”
The Cast and Crew Commentaryfeatures Kevin Smith, Ben Afleck, and others in a funny round table, discussing the film and the controversy surrounding it, plus rumors surrounding it. For example, in response to the suggestion made by some critics that the angels Bartleby and Loki intentionally satirize rumors that Afleck and Damon are a couple, Smith insists that the characters were written long before the actors were cast. We also learn that the language Afleck spits out while being tossed off the train by Silent Bob (Smith) is German, which translates as “I’ll get you for this, Silent Bob.” (Why German? Affleck thought the angels’ native language was Germanic and that they would lapse into it in a crisis.) This commentary also includes a “Video Hijinks” option, which allows you to access additional clips whenever the Buddy Christ figure appears on the screen.
The Technical Commentary, as the name suggests, eschews the jokes in favor of providing nitty-gritty details about the making of the film. For example, the Buddy Christ statue was sculpted from an existing statue of an apostle, with the head cut off and replaced.
Disc Two contains numerous bonus features: Deleted Scenes, Storyboards, Outtakes, Trailer, Saints and Sinners (talent bios of cast and crew), etc.
Deleted Scenes include:
- Jay Finds Solace in Christ
- Cardinal Glick speaks a lot
- Bethany’s Boo-Hoo
- Azrael house sits
- Bartleby & Loki make fun of Wisconsin
- Azrael’s moment of doubt, and even more Mooby fast-food fun!
- The now legendary “Fat Albert” sequence in which Jay and Silent Bob find solace in Christ
- Loki’s slaughter, Serendipity’s entire sotry, and the Golgothan is called “Stinky.”
- Azrael’s horns in the toy store
- Rufus tells Bethany about the wonder of Christ
- Loki’s take on “Star Wars,” Bartleby and Bethany flirt.
- The four-hour version of the campfire scene
- Our heroes spend a few extra minutes with Cardinal Glick
- The Grand Guignol Azrael sequence that reveal the nature of Hell and gives us a glimpse into the pit…sort of
- The fate of Cardinal Glick
- Poop Floats: The return of the Golgothan
Some of the scenes feature explanatory introductions by Smith (who tells us the last one is so bad that it could possibly destroy his career). Most of them are worth seeing, but as you can tell from their sheer number (their running time is approximately 100 minutes), they had to be deleted just to get the running time down to a manageable length.
Storyboardsfeatures three sequences, which seem to have been drawn on yellow-lined paper: Mooby, Triplet Attack, and No Man Attack. Only of interest to people interested in the nuts-and-bolts of film-making.
Outtakes include some at most mildly amusing bits and pieces of actors flubbing their lines and otherwise screwing up (i.e., hitting their heads on the boom microphone).
Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Pot Stashhas the two characters plugging the eponymous online store where you can purchase merchandise from the movie. Basically, a commercial.
Sony Pictures’ Blu-ray Disc (released on March 11, 2008) squeezes the bonus features from the Special Edition DVD onto a single disc with improved sound and video quality. Although DOGMA, like most Kevin Smith films, emphasizes dialogue, it also has plenty of special effects and several big visual moments, including a few flashes of violence, making it a worthwhile film to experience in a high-def version.
DOGMA. (Lion’s Gate, November 1999). Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Produced by Scott Mosier. Music by Howard Shore. Rated R. 128 mins. Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, with Alanis Morisette and Bud Cort.