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'Dogma' keeps the faith

CANNES, France -- Kevin Smith's "Dogma" had its first public screening here Friday night, and the world did not end. Not even in the film. The apocalyptic comedy, which has stirred charges of blasphemy in some Catholic circles, played at midnight Friday in the festival, after press screenings earlier in the day. There was much laughter and no visible outrage.

Yet the film is being handled gingerly by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the brothers who produced it for their Miramax, a Disney subsidiary, and then purchased it from Disney for $12 million to spare the parent company controversy. There was a pre-screening party Friday night for Smith and his cast members (Ben Affleck, Linda Fiorentino, Salma Hayek, Alan Rickman, Jason Mewes) at the Majestic Hotel's beach restaurant, but the invitations were carefully worded, "Bob and Harvey Weinstein invite you. . ." There was no mention of Miramax.

Versions of the screenplay have been circulating on the Web for months, and opponents of "Dogma" have taken exception to a lot of the dialogue and situations. For example, Fiorentino, who works as a counselor in an abortion clinic, is presented as a distant descendant of Jesus. George Carlin plays a cardinal who heads a "Catholicism WOW!" campaign that replaces the crucified Christ with a "Buddy Jesus" who winks and gives the thumbs-up sign. And Affleck and Matt Damon play exiled angels who hope to sneak back into heaven through a loophole, after Carlin declares a plenary indulgence for anyone who walks through the doors of his New Jersey church.

Phrases such as "plenary indulgence" are understood by Catholics but not many others, and indeed "Dogma," whatever its status as blasphemy, is more drenched in Catholic concepts, terminology and teachings than any other film I've ever seen. Non-Catholics should be issued a Catechism at the theater door.

Like Kevin Smith, I went to Catholic schools for eight years, and the dialogue in the movie was like a homecoming for me. Setting aside the liberal use of the f-word, which functions as punctuation in modern movie dialogue, "Dogma" plays like those long theoretical conversations we used to have about technicalities of Catholic law ("Sister, what if you miss making your Easter duty, but then you cross the International Date Line. . ."). Smith's dialogue is funny and smart, getting laughs with concepts and paradoxes that would be beyond the reach of many filmmakers.

What the film does do, for better or worse, is to assume that all Catholic teachings are literally true.

"Maybe it's not the Catholic church that should be upset, but every other religion," Smith mused early Saturday morning at as we drank coffee beside the still-deserted pool of the Majestic Hotel. "Other religions should be like - Hey, dude, wait a second! The world is going to end because of Catholic dogma? What about Judaism, Buddhism, the Methodists?"

In the film, the fallen angels take out victims with machine guns. Christ is temporarily out of action after getting trapped between the spiritual and temporal state because he's mugged in human form after returning to Earth to play Skee-Ball. And at the end, God appears. Well, not literally God (who is such an overwhelming sight that if you looked at her you would explode), but God in human form, appearing on the church steps and bringing reconciliation to the world (while resisting what must have been a great temptation to sing "What if God Was One of Us?").

The film does indeed end on a note of redemption - something I know all too well, because after I was caught sneaking out before the end, I was required to go back and see the ending by Father Harvey.

Here's what happened. The press screening began late, at 11:15 a.m. I was scheduled to interview Spike Lee at 1 p.m. At 1:10 p.m., when the film had not yet ended, I slipped out of the theater because I didn't want to keep Lee waiting. Weinstein saw me, and dispatched his minions to request that I look at the last reel, "because you have to see the redemption." I dutifully reported back to the theater early Saturday for the last 10 minutes, before going to talk to Kevin Smith.

This kind of hands-on attention to detail reveals how concerned Weinstein is that the film be seen as a whole, and not as a collection of possibly blasphemous sound bites. My own suspicion is that "Dogma" will play funnier and be more entertaining for Catholics than for any other group. Stand back to get the big picture, and the movie isn't blasphemous so much as devout by an extremely indirect route.

"This whole thing is a hearsay controversy," said Smith, who attends church every Sunday, and whose wife Jennifer is expecting their first child in five weeks. "Maybe people saw earlier drafts on the Web. My stuff often reads more harsh than the way it plays out. My sister read my screenplay for 'Chasing Amy' and chewed me a new rear end; she said it was vulgar and misogynist. When she saw the movie, she asked me what I cut out."

Smith told her, "Nothing. It's all in the delivery. Stuff comes across a lot different on the screen when it's coming out of a well-honed actor's mouth."

A lot of that dialogue involves impassioned (sometimes violent) arguments about church teachings. In an age of secular films, where the world of religion is completely absent, "Dogma's" characters hurl theological fine points at one another in impassioned tirades. I was reminded of how George Bernard Shaw's characters debated weighty issues in the midst of melodrama and comedy.

"I almost feel like it's a recruiting film," Smith said. "It's pro-faith. I want to grab the people attacking the film and tell them, 'Hey, dude, I'm doing your job while you sit here and politicize. I don't hear you out there tub-thumping for Christ.' And I don't remember reading anything in the Bible about where Christ was like, 'Go out amongst men, and make sure they don't say anything bad about me.' "

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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