'Dogma' from a devout blasphemer

CATCHING UP WITH ...KEVIN SMITH

Kevin Smith's new film makes fun of the church, but the issue of his faith was never in question.

November 14, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun film critic

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani may not have too many friends in the arts these days, but at least for one weekend last month -- the weekend that the Brooklyn Museum of Art opened its notorious "Sensation" exhibit, to be exact -- he was No. 1 with movie director Kevin Smith.

"I'm sorry for [the Brooklyn Museum]," Smith said that Saturday, "but it took heat off us. Thankfully something happened that got the Catholic League's attention, at least for the moment. I'll take a moment of peace if I can get it."

Smith was referring to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an organization that some months ago began mounting a campaign against his new film, "Dogma." The screwball comedy, which opened Friday, follows a couple of fallen angels as they embark on a murderous rampage on their way back into heaven, and a young woman (Linda Fiorentino) who is assigned by God to stop them.

On their way to an apocalyptic head-on collision, the protagonists meet several seraphic beings, including a disgruntled apostle and at least one devil in disguise. Even Jay and Silent Bob, two Smith stock characters, show up as a couple of profane prophets. Indeed, despite what looks like a thematic departure for Smith, "Dogma" is filled with all of the signatures that have appeared in his previous films ("Clerks," Mallrats," "Chasing Amy"): comic book- inspired action, gross sight gags, sophomoric humor and lots of profanity. And Smith's repertory company of actors -- Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Jason Mewes -- are all present and accounted for.

Under pressure

When the Catholic League found out about "Dogma" earlier this year, it immediately began threatening the film's studio, Miramax, and its corporate parent, Disney, with boycotts, petitions and overall bad publicity. Disney dropped "Dogma" after it was screened for the studio's president, Joe Roth. (According to Smith, Roth told Miramax chiefs Harvey and Bob Weinstein that "it's the most subversive film he's ever seen and he'd be afraid to have his name attached to it.")

Although the Weinsteins were still willing to release the film themselves, Smith thought the Disney connection would prove to be a liability for them. After shopping "Dogma" to every major studio, the film was finally sold to Lions Gate Films at the Cannes Film Festival.

On the day of a conversation with a reporter, Smith was in New York to attend a screening of "Dogma" at the New York Film Festival. The "moment of peace" he was enjoying would end two days later, when hundreds of protesters showed up before the screening at Lincoln Center to sing, pray and wave placards reading "Stop blasphemy." (Some weeks later, the Catholic League presented Disney with 300,000 signatures demanding that the studio sever its ties with Miramax. The studio said it intended to keep the subsidiary.)

Those demonstrators -- and even many of Smith's most devoted fans -- may have been surprised to learn that Smith, 29, is actually a lifelong, devout Catholic who takes his faith seriously -- even if he doesn't buy many of its institutional trappings. Even as "Dogma" pokes fun at some of the church's sillier extremes (George Carlin plays a priest who conceives a "Catholicism Wow!" campaign in which Jesus is turned into "Buddy Christ"), and clearly departs from its stricter doctrines (the woman sent to save the world works in an abortion clinic), the film is suffused with devotion, right up until its final scene, in which God is portrayed by Alanis Morisette as a loving, if slightly goofy, being.

Smith is clearly a man of huge appetites, whether for food, cigarettes or swearing. But he is also serious when it comes to religion, whether the subject is blasphemy, theological disputes or the so-called heretical books of the Bible.

He was raised Catholic in Red Bank, N.J., and never seriously questioned the church until he was in his early 20s, when he became convinced that his views on homosexuality and abortion made it impossible for him to be a Catholic.

"I started looking around at other faiths, but I wound up back with Catholicism because I [thought], 'Wait a second, why can't I be Catholic if I have a different point of view sometimes on church issues that aren't even issues of faith but are more political issues? Why, if I'm pro-choice, does that make me not a Catholic?'

"I realized that, faith being a very personal thing, it doesn't matter what issues I may not see eye-to-eye on the church with, because I'm not there for their benefit, I'm there for God. And I see eye-to-eye pretty much on everything with God. It's His world, I just live in it, and I agree with Him. Or Her."

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