In an oddly harmonic convergence, filmgoers this weekend are presented with not just one but two movies that tackle religion and, more to the point, Roman Catholic bureaucracy, with results that careen from the sublime to the ridiculous.
"The Messenger: The Joan of Arc Story," an epic historical drama about one of the most beloved and mysterious figures of the sainthood, bursts with energy, passion and visual verve. "Dogma," a slightly addled comedy that features epithet-hurling angels and a bevy of doctrinally incorrect characters, explodes with irreverence, iconoclasm and ribald humor.
It may surprise audiences to learn that the comedy featuring strippers, avenging punk demons and the most over-the-top scatological sight gag ever filmed is the more devout. But the cinema works in mysterious ways.
Each movie has received its share of hype. "Dogma," from independent filmmaker Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Mallrats," "Chasing Amy"), has led the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to petition Disney to sever its ties with the movie's original studio, Miramax, and festival screenings in Toronto and New York were greeted with hundreds of protesters.
"The Messenger" has simply covered the airwaves, with its telegenic star, Milla Jovovich, plastered over every TV screen, magazine and newspaper that will have her.
"Dogma," which stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is a typical Kevin Smith movie in almost every way: a rollicking jangle of verbal riffs, adolescent sexuality, profanity and story lines that would be very much at home in a comic book. It veers wildly between juvenile silliness and moments of wit that lance the church's most sanctimonious pieties even as they deeply question the tenets of faith.
Affleck and Damon play Bartleby and Loki, angels barred from heaven and exiled to Wisconsin for eternity. But Loki has discovered a loophole in church doctrine. If they can pass through the door of a particular church in New Jersey, Bartleby and Loki will be able to prove that God is fallible. (This shouldn't be too difficult: That church is run by a priest, played by George Carlin, who has undertaken a "Sunday, Yeah!" campaign, renaming Jesus "Buddy Christ" and introducing a line of snacks called "Hosties.") The problem is, if Bartleby and Loki prove God makes mistakes, all of God's creation will be obliterated.
Hip to their plan, God appoints Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) to head the two fallen angels off at the pass.
Bethany, who works in an abortion clinic, is grappling with her own crisis of faith -- she balances her checkbook during Mass -- so it takes some convincing for God's go-between (Alan Rickman as a messenger who's no Maid of Orleans) to persuade her that she must join two prophets for a journey to save the world.
Smith's particular brand of humor really kicks in when Bethany meets the prophets, in the form of the director's stock pot-head characters, Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith). In a characteristically vulgar stream-of-consciousness speech, Jay explains just why he and Silent Bob mysteriously turned up at Bethany's workplace. "We thought an abortion clinic would be a good place to meet loose women," he says blearily.
As Bethany, Loki and Bartleby embark on their collision course, they meet a motley crew of friends and foes: Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th apostle who got cut from the Bible "for political reasons"; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a heavenly muse who now works as a stripper; and Azrael (Jason Lee), a vindictive demon who wreaks havoc up and down the East Coast with his band of malign roller-hockey players.
Far more ambitious than Smith's earlier films, "Dogma" is filled with stunts, special effects and a whopper of a final scene, in which Bethany, Bartleby and Loki do battle for life everlasting. But for all its relative technical sophistication, this is still a Smith film. The director is happiest when he's eavesdropping on conversations about church doctrine, divine mandate, biblical interpretation and the nature of belief. He also likes his share of off-color humor, and "Dogma" is suffused with a sophomoric sensibility that belies its more serious underpinnings. Picture a group of brainy but hormonally wild 15-year-olds and you get the idea.
Smith's fans will no doubt savor the image of Jay and Silent Bob -- who are on their way to becoming the Hope and Crosby of their generation -- as they bumble their way to salvation; indeed, Jay's obsessively libidinous jokes comprise some of the most idiotically amusing lines of a film that proudly takes lowbrow humor as low as it can get.
But for all its goofiness, "Dogma" winds up on a sweetly transcendent note, suggesting that God loves each and every one of us like a benevolent parent.
Starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Jason Lee, Chris Rock, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, George Carlin
Directed by Kevin Smith
Rated R (strong language, violence, crude humor, drug content)
Running time 130 minutes
Released by Lions Gate Films
Sun score: * * *
Modern Joan of Arc
"The Messenger" has its share of humor too, although at times it's unintentional. Luc Besson, whose films include "La Femme Nikita" and "The Fifth Element," exploits the Joan of Arc story for every ounce of its visual glory and historic sweep, but he isn't shy about contemporizing it enough for the average high school student. This means that the story's more sober elements are regularly leavened by hip visual flourishes and even some quiet comedy.
In Besson's reading, Joan (Milla Jovovich) was traumatized as a child by seeing her sister raped and murdered by invading English soldiers during the 100 Years War; it was revenge, rather than more ethereal motivations, that drove her to lead an army on behalf of Charles VII in 1429 to free France from English rule.
In keeping with his pop-psychology premise, Besson has filmed "The Messenger" in thoroughly modern style, with lots of vivid color and energetic editing (Joan's visions might have been conceived by a music video director), and some elastic performances by his supporting cast. As Charles, John Malkovich has moments of preening prima donna-hood worthy of his current comedy, "Being John Malkovich." And Joan's army provides a surprising share of humor amid the severed limbs, gushing blood and burning fortresses that surround them. "She's nuts," one soldier says to another at one point. Let's see, just how would that translate into 15th century French?
These liberties may seem dissonant, but they save "The Messenger" from turgidity, even at a two-hour-and-20-minute running time. And Besson has created a visually stunning movie, imbuing everything he sees with terrific visual interest, whether it's a lone tree in the windswept French countryside or one of many spectacular battles.
From its ecstatic opening sequences, "The Messenger" seems to take place in a hallucinatory state of saturated hyper-reality, where even sacramental wine looks like electric cherry Kool-Aid. Far more than the spiritual dimensions of Joan's journey, Besson seems interested in its supernatural side, which allows for less thought and more camera-play.
Admittedly, the film's secular focus makes "The Messenger" a dazzlingly fun movie to watch. Breathtaking battles and political intrigue (mostly at the hands of Charles' mother-in-law, played to haughty perfection by Faye Dunaway) make for supreme spectacle. But despite these strengths, "The Messenger" can't make up for its fatal lack of a Joan.
Jovovich, whose translucent green eyes and angular, androgynous beauty seem tailored for this role, isn't able to bear the weight of Joan's complexity. Her voluptuous lower lip a-tremble, she plays her as something between a petulant tomboy and the ultimate groupie. (When she meets Charles for the first time, she hugs his knees like a love-crazed fan.)
Jovovich clearly threw herself into this performance with hard work and abandon, but she struggles in a part that calls for more maturity than she possesses. As the venerable actress Uta Hagen said recently, you can be too young to play Joan, but you can never be too old.
Even more than Jovovich's unsteady performance, "The Messenger" is marred by its own ambivalence regarding the story's spiritual core. When Joan is finally imprisoned, she is visited by more visions -- this time her own conscience, which plies her with questions like a skeptical therapist. By the end of her conversations with the cloaked character (played by Dustin Hoffman), Joan -- and presumably the audience -- is convinced that her visions were a product of ego rather than God's will.
Whereas "Dogma" emerges from its crazily bloody fray with God firmly in charge, "The Messenger" ends with Joan burning at the stake, her eyes fixed upon a cross that we're meant to think is meaningless next to the more omnipotent power of human psychology.
It's the vulgar, trivial, screwball comedy that turns out to be the true believer.
Starring Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman
Directed by Luc Besson
Rated R (strong graphic battles, a rape and language)
Running time 141 minutes
Released by Columbia Pictures
Sun score: * *1/2