Dogma: A Damnable Mess of a Movie

January 2000

People have been talking about it. “Have you seen Dogma? It’s a film about Catholicism. In fact, it’s a major attack on Catholicism! Shouldn’t you see it?” Well, one of our editorial crew volunteered for the duty. He spent Saturday afternoon at a local movie house and came back looking slightly sick. His report: The cola was flat, the multiplex’s popcorn was maxi-stale, and the “melted butter” seemed to have a petroleum-jelly base. But — what about the movie? Oh, the movie. That, he said, was negligible: It contains no dogma and shows no Catholicism, and it’s not much of a film. But for the sake of our readers he wiped the salt and grease from his hands and typed up this report:

A simple message for Catholics: You needn’t see Dogma. Catholics who welcome a good debate about the Faith or an honest attempt to point out the defects of the faithful won’t find anything here to engage them. Verily I say unto you, the least of us is better equipped to criticize the Church and her members than is Kevin Smith, judging by this comedy that he has written and directed and in which he plays (very amateurishly amid a cast of practiced actors) a leading role. The film is uninformed and uninformative about its putative topic, evincing no significant knowledge of Catholicism, or of Christianity. It uses such terms as Jesus, God, angel, apostle, and prophet, but only as the butts of jokes that are mostly dirty and mostly dumb. It is mainly concerned with two “Catholic” topics — angels and plenary indulgences — and toward these Smith has apparently taken the approach of eschewing all research. Research? His screenplay shows no sign that he bothered even to glance at the Catechism or an encyclopedia of Catholic doctrine.

So a Catholic who comes to the film ready to receive a salutary scolding will be disappointed. A cogent hostility, expressed by an accomplished artist, can help us to see ourselves afresh, and a Catholic (or any Christian) might benefit from reading criticism that has some substance and artistry. A few things come readily to mind: Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov, Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, some of the poems of William Blake and Robert Browning. Better to read half a dozen pages of any of these than to waste a couple of hours watching Dogma.

A simple message also for lovers of film: You, too, should stay away, since there is nothing here to engage you and much to depress you. The story line is now slack, now hasty, and always mechanical, without a glimmer of intelligence or a spark of real feeling. The dialogue is one long string of profanities punctuated by tangled knots of tedious, and often illiterate, expository speech. The profanity is way beyond excessive, but at least it sounds fairly idiomatic. When he attempts to write anything above a curse, however, Smith is not up to the task. To call his theologizing and metaphysicizing sophomoric would be unfair to sophomores everywhere.

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New Oxford Notes: January 2000

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