Film: Missing in Action

The Holy See recently hosted a seminar on film in the 21st century at which Pope John Paul II, urging moviemakers to do right by religion, informed the participants that their work should seek to demonstrate man’s “natural propensity for peace and harmony with God and other men.”

This rosy-hued suggestion led me to reflect on the 30-odd films I have reviewed for Crisis in the past two years, not many of which were notable for their spirituality. Some, to be sure, were memorable in other ways, though most were mediocre and a few horrible beyond belief (I still shudder whenever I think about Payback). Perhaps a half-dozen—rather more than I expected—dealt with spiritual themes, in most cases stupidly. But in only one, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, was religion portrayed both sympathetically and from an explicitly Christian perspective.

The near-complete absence of Christianity from modern American films is surprising, given the fact that most Americans are at least nominal Christians, however latitudinarian they may be in actual practice. On the other hand, the pope’s call for a more spiritual approach to filmmaking must be balanced against the peculiar things that happen to revealed religion on the rare occasions when it does succeed in sneaking into the movies.

Consider, for example, Kevin Smith’s Dogma and Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair. One is a vulgar, aggressively sophomoric farce about a pair of foul-mouthed angels; the other is a superficially respectful adaptation by a big-name British director of a famous novel by one of the best-known Catholic novelists of our time. Yet of the two, it is the farce that takes its subject matter more seriously.

Having said this, I must add that if you were shocked by anything you’ve read about Dogma, chances are you’ll hate it. Neither should you send your children to see it. Smith’s movies are not made to please the pious, and this one, to put it mildly, is no exception, as even the briefest of plot summaries will make alarmingly clear.

Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a divorced, semi lapsed Catholic who works at an abortion clinic and balances her checkbook in church every Sunday morning, is visited one night by Metatron (the deliciously world-weary Alan Rickman), the angelic messenger of God (who is played by the rock star Alanis Morrisette—yes, “She” is a woman), who informs her that she must make a pilgrimage to New Jersey, accompanied by Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith), a cheerfully loopy pair of drug dealers. Their mission is to stop Bartleby and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), two fallen angels, from passing through the doors of a cathedral and being granted automatic plenary indulgences that would allow them to return to paradise, thus disproving God’s infallibility and thereby terminating the whole of created existence. (Only a cradle Catholic with a taste for dogmatics could have cooked up a plot twist like this.)

Along the way, Bethany meets Rufus (Chris Rock), a hitherto-unknown 13th apostle who failed to make it into the Bible because he was black, and Azrael (Jason Lee), an Armani-clad devil who is prepared to do anything to help Bartleby and Loki win their indulgences and destroy all existence, hell included. She also learns—brace yourself—that she is the Last Scion, a collateral descendent of Christ Himself (this being a religious magazine, we’ll stop there).

It’s easy to see why the Catholic League began blasting away at Dogma months before its release. Yet Smith, who is a practicing Catholic, insists that Dogma is not blasphemous, and though he might profit from looking up “blasphemy” in the Shorter Oxford, I take his point. For while Dogma is blasphemous by any recognized definition—albeit in a juvenile way that will be familiar to those who grew up in a strictly observant family or attended a church school—it is also unabashedly religious. Unlikely as it may sound, the frenzied hijinks are not meant to suggest that there is no God, or that He (pardon me, She) is somehow evil or perverse. On the contrary, they are a candy coating designed to render palatable to unsuspecting moviegoers the radical notion that a living, loving God is active in the world today.

What I found exasperating about Dogma was not the incessant profanity—which is funny at first but quickly grows tiresome—but the squishy sermonizing in which the film’s celestial characters indulge whenever the plot slows up. (Surely this is the first teen flick whose credits acknowledge the influence of feminist theologian Elaine Page’s.) Lines like “You Catholics don’t celebrate your faith, you mourn it” are not exactly a breathtakingly original contribution to theological discourse, though Catholic League spokesman Patrick Scully misses the point by a mile when he calls them “a source of anti-Catholic bigotry.” Smith is not an anti-Catholic bigot: He is a liberal Catholic, defective in orthodoxy but sincere in his faith, and while I trust he will someday be embarrassed by the adolescent excesses of Dogma, I wouldn’t dream of questioning the seriousness of his spiritual intentions.

Considered strictly as a piece of filmmaking, Dogma is an exuberant mess. Smith is far more convincing when forced to work within the narrow constraints of a tight budget, as was the case with Clerks and Chasing Amy. Give him a million dollars to play with and suddenly Ben Affleck sprouts wings and starts flying through the skies of Red Bank, New Jersey, smiting innocent passersby. Still, he has a knack for drawing energetic performances out of his excellent casts, and the cartoony vitality of Dogma does much to overcome its not-infrequent spasms of preachiness.

Would that The End of the Affair had a fraction of the energy of Dogma, not to mention its uncomplicated embrace of faith. Granted, Graham Greene’s novel was already more than a little bit aberrant in the theological department, but Neil Jordan has upped the ante by altering the plot in a way that is both heterodox and smarmy, though he has left most of the novel’s narrative mechanism intact, as well as its wartime setting (one may take leave to doubt, however, that London looked quite so pretty in 1940).

As in the book, Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), an unbelieving author with an upper lip so stiff that you could use it to punch holes in concrete, is having an affair with Sarah (Julianne Moore), a basically good woman who has grown bored with her starchy bureaucrat of a husband (Stephen Rea). When Bendrix appears to have been killed in a German buzz-bomb raid, Sarah prays for him to be restored to life, offering in return never to sleep with him again; the miracle comes to pass, and a chastened Sarah returns to the Catholicism of her youth.

Alas, Jordan glamorizes the novel’s tonic harshness by allowing the lovers to resume their steamy affair after the war, as well as by concocting a noxiously sentimental deathbed scene for Sarah. I have long harbored grave doubts about the essential seriousness of Greene’s Catholicism, but I have no doubts whatsoever about the phoniness of the pseudo-Catholicism portrayed in this film. It is more like Brief Encounter than anything Greene could possibly have had in mind, though the ever-tasteful Noel Coward would scarcely have allowed his stars to strip on screen, much less to participate in coarsely explicit sex scenes.

Anyone interested in catching a glimpse of Fiennes’s back side will find The End of the Affair deeply satisfying. Me, I’ll take Dogma, which contains no nudity, no sex, and—more important—no lack of enthusiasm about the abiding goodness of God.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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