His confidence and box office credibility restored, 1999 saw Smith take his most ambitious and provocative step ever with a free-wheelingly blasphemous road trip which dives deep into Catholic lore and expands the View Askewniverse to a positively cosmic scale. “Dogma” is a high concept ecumenical caper which simultaneously satirises and reaffirms faith. In amongst all the Helen Lovejoying which preceded its release (and prompted Smith to provide a series of pre-emptive disclaimer title cards) nobody seemed to notice or care that despite its superficially puerile and sacrilegious trappings, “Dogma” unequivocally establishes that God is a real and present force within the View Askewniverse.
When fallen angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck) are made aware of a loophole within Catholic doctrine, they realise that a New Jersey church’s designation as a venue of plenary indulgence will allow them to finally reenter heaven, subverting the will of God – leading to the erasure of existence. But with God missing, the Metatron (Alan Rickman) has no choice but to send the last Scion on a mission to save the universe with the help of two very familiar prophets.
With his affinity for profanity-laced dialogue and sharp pop-culture sensibilities, Smith has often been compared to Tarantino and while he lacks the latter’s enthusiasm for bloodthirsty violence, the disparity in critical and commercial success between the two of them has always struck me as unfair. “Dogma”, sees Smith embracing a different style though, this is our favourite New Jersey auteur at his most Gilliam-esque. Not just in the relentless tweaking of the foibles of the pious and intolerant but in the visual style and anarchic storytelling.
Despite the influences, though, “Dogma” remains resolutely, uniquely Kevin Smith, populating his typically sharp and vulgarly witty script with his starriest cast yet. Linda Fiorentino is fine as Bethany, the leading lady and last Scion at the centre of the story, she lacks the kind of energy needed to make the most of the role. Janeane Garofalo, who appears in an early scene, ironically would have made a much sparkier Bethany. Thankfully, the rest of the cast are happy to lean into the film’s uniquely skewed and apocryphal take on matters ecclesiastical. Rickman, a self-confessed fan of “Chasing Amy”, is wonderfully sardonic as the long-suffering voice of God while Chris Rock and Salma Hayeck also seem to be having fun. Separated from the main action for the most part, Jason Lee still provides great value as the demon Azrael. As our heroes converge on the church which finds itself at the centre of the fundamental existential crisis (thanks to the hubris of Cardinal Glick (a tremendous George Carlin) and his new ‘buddy Christ’), they’re racing against Damon and Affleck’s disgruntled angles who spend their time bickering and debating the morality of humanity and their place in God’s affections compared with the lot of angels, leaving an increasingly bloody trail of murder and mayhem behind them.
Easily Smith’s most thematically audacious scripts, in amongst all the horny teen stoner jokes and scatological humour there’s a genuinely thoughtful and sincere satire on religion and faith which is as reverent as it is disrespectful. There’s a perverse delight in seeing someone like the classically trained Alan Rickman share the screen with a motormouth stoner like Jason Mewes and “Dogma” features my favourite performance by Smith himself as Silent Bob.
“Dogma” should have been a bigger hit and deserves a wider audience. It’s a bonkers road movie adventure movie with a philosophical underpinning and an infallible sense of iconic pop culture. It’s also a surprisingly personal reflection on spirituality and faith, with an ultimately uplifting and reaffirming conclusion.