Kevin Smith, Religion, and 1999’s Dogma

Dogma is not my favorite Kevin Smith film. It might not even be his funniest film. However, 1999’s Dogma is easily the best written of all of Smith’s work, which includes Chasing Amy, a film that certainly has its place in late ’90s films and remains one of my favorite indie romantic comedies of all time.

According to Smith, Dogma was conceived before he ever made his first feature Clerks. As such, he’d spend the next few years working on it, and it shows. The film is certainly made by someone who has made a movie before. It’s competent and it moves along at a solid pace. Not to mention, the performances in this movie are very good, particularly a few which I’ll get to later. But the script is the real star.

Kevin Smith was raised Catholic, and still identified as Catholic through the writing, making, and release of the film. This is important to note because all the religious aspects come from a place of familiarity, and although the film has plenty of criticism for religion, it clearly comes from a place of love. I’m sort of reminded of the kind of parodies that come from someone who at least likes the very thing that’s being challenged. If not, works like these tend to come off as cynical or like a rant. Though there are plenty of speeches in Dogma, the film is not a rant.

Honestly, the film plays all its religious aspects completely straight. The comedy comes elsewhere. Let me explain. First of all, Smith treats Catholicism as a fact in the film. Nowhere in Dogma does Smith suggest to the audience that angels aren’t real, God isn’t real, and the dogma that puts the events of the film in motion isn’t real. Smith isn’t concerned whether someone in the audience believes it to be true or not. The point is that he believes it’s real, and this allows the characters in the film to believe it’s real, too. And, honestly, if I can buy that Jay and Silent Bob believe in God and angels, I can buy everything else that happens. Then again, I was raised Catholic, so perhaps it’s easier for me.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as Loki and Bartleby in Dogma
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as Loki and Bartleby in Dogma. Miramax, 1999.

Regardless, by treating the subject matter as reality, Smith can directly approach and make explicit the issues he has with religion, whether it’s Jesus’ race, God seemingly not listening to our prayers, the Church’s noninvolvement in specific events throughout history, the way women are portrayed in the Bible, or the classic idea that God cares more about humans than angels, among others.

This kind of approach, though, had a backlash when it came time for the film to be released. Though scheduled to be released by Disney-owned Miramax in late 1998, the film was eventually purchased by Harvey and Bob Weinstein and released with Lions Gate Films’ help about a year later. The reason was due to the harsh controversy surrounding the film, given the film’s subject, as noted above. There were protests and threats against the filmmakers’ lives.

As Smith would later say, “It’s a movie with a rubber poop monster.” And fair enough. Dogma definitely contains silly and ridiculous characters, moments, and dialogue. However, I do believe that the film’s power, and there is power, comes from the speeches heard throughout. Whether it’s Bethany speaking about losing her faith, Rufus talking about race or Serendipity discussing women, Smith’s point with Dogma seems less about making people laugh, though given his talents, particularly at that time in his career, it’s practically a given. The point of Dogma, I’d argue, was to show how it feels to be religious.

I don’t mean how it feels to be zealous. I’m talking about choosing to have a specific faith while recognizing both the implausibility and impossibility of so many aspects of said faith. Again, the film is clearly made by a practicing Catholic, which Smith was at that time. He knows the subject matter well and by all means shows it with a good amount of respect. Heck, even Buddy Christ doesn’t come across as particularly blasphemous. He’s smiling, winking, and giving a thumbs-up!

Smith also knows that there are issues with the Bible and that there are plenty of examples of individuals in the Church who are not good people. How, then, can one reconcile following a faith that isn’t perfect? I’d argue that Smith’s answer is that you just do. On the one hand, I can choose to leave my faith because I have that ability. On the other hand, I can stay. However, just because I choose to stay doesn’t mean I choose to blindly follow dogma or accept it when those in power have been shown to be horrible human beings.

Take Rufus and Serendipity. Neither has faith in the traditional sense because they know God is real. However, they have their own issues with how faith is represented on Earth. Rufus wants people to know that not only was he, a Black man, the thirteenth apostle who was written out of Jesus’ story because of his race, but Jesus was also Black. Even as research seems to point to this very likely reality, Rufus knows that there will be people who won’t accept anything other than a white Jesus:

RUFUS: The message is what counts. But folks who build their faith on that message should be colorblind.

Even later in the film, Rufus has other concerns, such as “belief.” He understands that when it comes to religion, too many people believe rather than have faith. Specifically, he thinks it’s better to have ideas:

RUFUS: People die for it, people kill for it. The whole of existence is in jeopardy right now, because of the Catholic belief structure regarding this plenary indulgence bullshit…And if they’re successful, you and me, all of this, ends in a heartbeat. All over a belief.

Smith isn’t saying, “Stop practicing your religion!” What he’s saying is, “If you want to keep your faith, do it. Just think for yourself, too.”

Alan Rickman as the Metatron spreads his wings in Dogma
Alan Rickman as the Metatron in Dogma. Miramax, 1999.

This ties in with so many other characters in Dogma. Serendipity’s backstory was that she left Heaven so she could start using her own ideas rather than just inspiring others. Loki’s backstory involved questioning why he should follow God’s orders. Bethany is a practicing Catholic who works at an abortion clinic. And Jay basically does and says whatever the hell he wants, for the most part.

Freedom is an important concept in Dogma, and it’s something Bartleby is willing to use to bring the whole thing down. He served God, and then he was kicked out of Paradise, and forced to follow God’s punishment. When the time comes to undo God’s decree, Bartleby decides he should, even if the consequences mean the literal end of everything. Smith understands that even something as fundamental as thinking for yourself can have catastrophic consequences.

Overall, though, Smith does seem to blame Catholicism for this. After all, were it not for the plenary indulgence dogma, Azrael would never have sent Bartleby and Loki to New Jersey. As Serendipity tells Bethany:

SERENDIPITY: Leave it to the Catholics to destroy existence.

Kevin Smith deals with some pretty big ideas in Dogma, but I feel like a lot of people tend to focus on the humor (fair enough) or the so-called controversial stuff (Rufus talking about Mary and Joseph having sex and starting a family). Still, it’s there, and I feel like I’ve just covered the surface. The next time someone watches Dogma, they should pay attention.

Then again, it might be difficult to watch the film. Because the Weinsteins still hold the rights to it, Dogma can’t be found on any streaming platform, and it’s long been out of print if one were looking to buy it on DVD or Blu-ray. Of course, it’s on YouTube, and I’m sure a few other places in the Web’s grey market. But there’s a reason why this past April Fool’s Day, there was excitement over an image announcing a remaster of the film that was coming later in 2024. Plenty of people wanted to know if it was real or a joke. It turns out it was a joke.

Still, after 25 years and Kevin Smith’s relative fall from the heights of the ‘90s and early aughts, Dogma is still a film that is relevant. It would be more relevant if more people could see it. I don’t think I’m wrong in believing that Dogma would be in the Daily Top 10 if it were put on Netflix next week. It’s got things to say about Catholicism, and religion in general, that still applies today. It has a cast of actors who are still well-known. And, yes, it’s got the humor.

Dogma is a hilarious film, due in no small part to Smith’s script but also the actors who are all game. Pretty much everyone gets something funny to say or do. Alan Rickman is as dry and awesome as ever. Chris Rock is classic Chris Rock, and it’s great to hear him speak Smith’s sharp dialogue. Jason Mewes was possibly never better than Jay, a character who is certainly problematic but who also believes that “a woman’s body is her own fucking business.” There are others. At the moment, though, I do want to single out the film’s protagonist, Bethany, but specifically, the actor who gave her life, Linda Fiorentino.

Linda Fiorentino as Bethany in Dogma
Linda Fiorentino as Bethany in Dogma. Miramax, 1999.

I love Fiorentino, whether it is The Last Seduction or even her role in Men In Black. In 1999, I was still pedestrian when it came to my own tastes, mainly due to the limited amount of exposure I had to movies. I mean, sure, I saw stuff on cable, when we had it, and even now and then, my family rented stuff from the likes of Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, or a grocery store with a small but deeply cherished video store inside, but it wouldn’t be another year or so before I had the money and the freedom to rent what I wanted.

For all intents and purposes, Bethany was one of my favorite female characters ever. Not only was she a hero, but she could be selfish and upset. She felt like a real person to me. Over the years, that appreciation has only deepened. Even as I have watched thousands of movies since, a lot (but not enough) with well-written female protagonists, I kind of marvel that of any character Kevin Smith could’ve written into Dogma, he chose someone like Bethany.

When he talks about how he originally wanted Joey Lauren Adams for the role, who I’m sure would’ve done a good job, I honestly cannot put anyone other than Linda Fiorentino into the role of Bethany Sloane. Regardless of how her relationship was with Smith on set, she delivers a great performance in my opinion. Fiorentino’s Bethany carries with her a profound sadness that can only come from someone questioning such firmly held beliefs as Catholicism.

This is a character who wanted a child and couldn’t conceive. As a result, she lost her husband, and with it, her unquestioning faith in a god who would just let this happen. Now, I can understand how low stakes this kind of situation could seem to some people, but I’m not going to fault Bethany for questioning God due to the fact that she can’t conceive simply because she still happens to be a white woman in America.

For someone to be religious, it takes a lot. To have faith in something that might not make one bit of difference in one’s life sounds, frankly, dumb to a lot of people. But I can see where Bethany, and by extension Smith, is coming from. Why can’t God do more? Should God do more? In the film, the Metatron lies to Bethany and says that by God’s decree, she must “stop a couple of angels from entering and thus negating all existence.” She declines at first because doesn’t believe she owes God anything. Smith understands where she’s coming from, and I don’t believe he judges her.

Bethany ultimately does it, but she kind of begrudgingly does so. I love how Fiorentino also plays Bethany as exhausted. Here she is on a quest from God, even though God hasn’t helped her conceive a child; not to mention that she’s stuck having to hang around Jay. I mean, from my perspective in the audience, it’s a good time, but there’s no way I could handle so much Jay in my life. She’s tired, and you get the feeling that when it’s all over, she’s going home and moving on with her life.

But Smith goes a step further and actually shows us God (played well enough by Alanis Morrissette). By this point, Bethany has died in helping to save the world, and God has brought her back to life (and possibly everyone who died in the film’s final act?). Although she cannot hear God’s words, unless she wants her head to explode, she still speaks to God. If a light moment, but I still wonder what God means (if anything) with that nose tap and funny noise. Still, the Metatron informs Bethany that she is pregnant, a true gift for all she has done.

But I wonder, did Bethany have to go through all of that and die to be able to have a child? Is Smith saying that we need to do things for God to give us what we truly desire? I don’t think that’s what Smith is suggesting. Smith probably wanted Bethany to have a happy ending, and that’s fair. She definitely earned it. I just wonder why she had to earn, while so many others don’t. Maybe that’s not a question for me to answer.

Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith as Jay and Silent Bob in Dogma
Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith as Jay and Silent Bob in Dogma. Miramax, 1999.

Dogma is without a doubt the best thing Kevin Smith ever wrote because he manages a solid critique of faith, structured religion, and God while making solid jokes throughout. As much as I’m happy Jay and Silent Bob are present in the film, it would’ve worked without them. But frankly, it works better with them. We need their levity every now and then.

I love this film, and to be clear, I love Smith’s body of work, including the stuff that’s probably considered to be objectively bad. (You know the ones.) Regardless of the fact that I am a fan, as I rewatched this film for its twenty-fifth anniversary, it became clear just how much promise Smith showed the world in 1999. I wonder how different his career would’ve been had he not followed Dogma with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Jersey Girl. The former is slapstick, and the latter is melodramatic. Neither set the box office on fire, but then again, Smith was probably never destined to move on to bigger movies.

Most of this article has been me reflecting on what I believe are the interesting and provocative ideas that Smith brings, but don’t get me wrong. Again, Dogma is funny. It’s clearly a comedy. And there is more to it than just its script. I could write another 2,500 words over the cast alone. I haven’t even mentioned how great Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are together, probably the best work they’ve done in a film together if I must be honest.

The film deserves more love than I currently see. It obviously has its fans, and yes, being difficult to stream hurts that possibility, but it would be nice if we remembered that Smith is more than a guy who got kicked off a plane, had it out for critics for a while, and spends a lot of his focus on just his fanbase nowadays. Kevin Smith wrote a near masterpiece. It’s, frankly, one of the best films from 1999, and I hope I’m proven wrong this year and I’m able to read article after article about this movie.

Twenty-five years after it premiered in theaters, Dogma remains, in this writer’s point of view, Kevin Smith’s best work.

Written by Michael Suarez

I write and occasionally teach English classes. When I'm not doing either, I'm watching something awesome, reading something awesome, listening to something awesome, eating something awesome, or resting. Actually, not everything I do is awesome, but I'm okay with that. My loves include Lost, cinema from the '90s and aughts, U2, David Bowie, most of Star Wars, and - you know what? I love a lot of things. More things than I hate.

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