RogerBW's Blog

Dogma 16 July 2022

1999 religious comedy, dir. Kevin Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck: IMDb / allmovie. A brief revival of the plenary indulgence gives two banished angels the chance to get back into heaven… but that might be really quite a bad thing.

I was brought up as a Catholic; I got better. (At this point in his life, Smith was in the process of getting better.) So I speak this language; but perhaps I speak it a bit too well, because it sounds like the sort of thing you'd get from a first-year theology student. If this, and that, then… whoah, contradiction! The whole thing falls down! (It reminds me of the sort of very technical person who thinks that law works like technical documentation; if it did, we wouldn't need courts.) The second-year student has ideally learned that theology is a mere attempt by imperfect humans to understand something that they are not really capable of understanding; of course it's going to have contradictions.

Of course there's a lot of Good Omens (1990) here, as well as the role-playing game In Nomine (1997 in English), but neither of them appears in the acknowledgements and I'm willing to believe it: these ideas were floating about in the general slightly geeky culture that didn't yet automatically regard high-ranking Catholics as bad. (This is a film that couldn't have been made in the same way after the revelations by the Boston Globe in 2002 of large-scale child rape and cover-ups; its Catholic Church, at least the one member we meet, is self-interested but basically harmless, rather than a figure of evil.)

Linda Fiorentino plays Bethany, an abortion-clinic worker who turns out to be the last living relative of the Christ (yes, yes, the doctrine of perpetual virginity of Mary didn't become canon until the 4th century). She plays this oddly flat, for someone who's going through life-changing revelations; I kept wanting Aubrey Plaza in her place, who makes a flat character eminently watchable, as in 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed – but she was 15 when this was made. (There's one scene where Bethany's drunk and opens up a bit, so I assume this was a directorial choice, but it's not one that works for me.)

I could watch Alan Rickman deadpan all day, but I don't get the chance, because over we go to Jay and Silent Bob, who are apparently meant to be the comic relief. Shut up, Jay. (Jason Mewes at this point had worked out that if he stayed clean for the three days before his compulsory drug test he could party for the rest of the week.) Maybe this schtick worked better in 1999, but not for me.

The double act that does work is Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as the two fallen angels, Damon having been hired after his chemistry with Affleck in Good Will Hunting. I don't like either character, I'm not supposed to, but the acting is good and their scenes are eminently watchable. Meanwhile Chris Rock is… actually not annoying.

I found individual scenes worked better for me than the overall plot, which is basically a road movie with minor variations; the characters move on because the script says it's time for them to move on, rather than because they have any particular reason for it. On the other hand, the film is clearly from the heart, saying the thing that always needs to be said to people who define themselves first by their beliefs: what you do matters, how you treat other people matters. Be Excellent To Each Other.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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