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Chasing Catholicism : Kevin Smith was in search of his Catholic faith when he created 'Dogma.' Now, others are after him.

November 10, 1999|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Kevin Smith is talking about the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. He's fondly recounting how his eighth-grade religion teacher, Sister Theresa, sparked his hunger for deeper inquiry into topics like the lives of the saints and the Gnostic gospels.

He's even talking--seriously--about becoming a deacon after his movie-making days are over so he can use his gift of gab to sell Jesus in a hip and passionate way. This is the same 29-year-old wunderkind whose films--from "Clerks" to "Chasing Amy"--typically feature a crude stew of gross-out humor, comic-book fantasies and ribald references to sex, drugs and flatulence?

The fact is, Smith considers himself a good Catholic, even a "religious nut" of sorts. The writer-director sees his new comedy, "Dogma," which opens Friday, as a reverent act of faith: questioning some of organized Christianity's man-made doctrines but exuberantly affirming the existence and benevolence of God.

That his passion has been, in his eyes, so profoundly misunderstood by those who see "Dogma" as a blasphemous mockery of Catholicism perturbs, puzzles, and yes, pains him.

"It's a bit disconcerting because you're trying to do the work of Christ . . . to go out there and spread the good word," Smith said in an interview this week. "I don't make a movie like 'Dogma' to make fun of the Catholic Church. I talk about stuff in 'Dogma' to make the church more human so people aren't so put off by it. Faith is something you can attain."

Plenty of people don't seem to buy his vision. Smith and his film have been the target of hate mail, demonstrations and even a few death threats that have rattled him into fearing for the safety of his wife and 4-month-old daughter.

Smith's main nemesis, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has taken out newspaper protest ads, distributed thousands of critical pamphlets and circulated petitions demanding that the Walt Disney Co. dump Miramax Films, the film's original distributor. Under fire, Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein bought back the rights to the film earlier this year for a sum reportedly between $10 million and $14 million and sold it to Lions Gate Films.

"The entire plot is one situation after another of making fun of the Catholic faith," declared Patrick Scully, spokesman for the 350,000-member Catholic League.

He acknowledged that he has not yet seen the film and defended league President William Donohue's refusal to call Smith directly to discuss their objections. Both points are sore spots with Smith, who sees the public attacks without consultation as un-Christian.

Father Gregory Coiro of the Los Angeles Archdiocese said the casting itself gives him pause: a cardinal played by George Carlin, who routinely spices his comedy acts with jabs at Catholicism; God played by Alanis Morissette, a rock star known for singing the praises of oral sex. The U.S. Catholic Conference gave the film its worst rating of "O": morally offensive for its "anti-religious japes, some intense violence, sexual references, substance abuse, assorted vulgarities, profanity and recurring rough language."

Film's Serious Intent Gets Wacky Characters

Ironically, the controversy the film has sparked was not the one Smith expected.

From the start, the New Jersey comic-book fiend envisioned his film about two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) looking for a loophole to get back to heaven as a way to explore serious questions of faith. But to connect with his congregation--mostly the unchurched, cynical under-30 set--he needed to use a hip and humorous lingua franca.

"I always wanted to do something that celebrated or validated faith for someone of my age without seeming corny or hackneyed or a bunch of baloney," says Smith, cutting a casually incongruous figure in baggy shorts and a clown T-shirt amid the formal Asian elegance of a Beverly Hills hotel suite. "If I was going to do that, I wasn't going to be making 'The Song of Bernadette.' "

Instead, it meant peppering his film with wacky and irreverent characters: a protagonist who works in an abortion clinic (Linda Fiorentino), a 13th apostle cut out of the Bible because he's black (Chris Rock), a stripper muse (Salma Hayek) and two pot-smoking prophets (Jason Mewes and Smith himself in roles similar to the ones they originated in "Clerks"). It also meant throwing in Smith's usual sexual and scatological asides--including a rubber poop monster--to sweeten the film's deadly serious sermonizing.

The movie traverses delicate theological terrain regarding God's gender, Jesus' skin color, Christ's bloody crucifixion as a central symbol of Catholicism. It asserts that Mary and Joseph had sex and produced siblings of Jesus. (That position is accepted by Protestants but rejected, Coiro said, by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which hold that Mary was a perpetual virgin.) The film also takes on some of the church's more shameful moments, such as its passive posture toward slavery and the Holocaust.

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