Earlier this month, two Catholic-themed movies, "Dogma" and "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," opened on the same day. Although one is a comedy set in the present and the other a drama set in the 15th century, both serve to remind us that where cinematic portrayals of the Church are concerned, we've come a long way in the wrong direction since the era of "Boys Town" and "The Bells of St. Mary's."
It's likely that some orthodox Catholics, unaware of the uncongenial message of the relatively underpublicized "Messenger," wasted their time and money on it. (I did.) In the case of "Dogma," however, the flock had fair warning, thanks mostly to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Well before the film's release, the invaluable League mounted its usual righteous protest in response to yet another Hollywood assault on the Church. No doubt with the League in mind, "Dogma" writer/director Kevin Smith placed a jokey disclaimer at the beginning of the picture, calling it "a work of comedic fantasy, not to be taken seriously."
Early on, "Dogma" contains an interesting scene mocking a cardinal's campaign to make Catholicism more believer-friendly. The centerpiece of the campaign is a winking, smiling, upraised-thumb figure of Jesus Christ. (The cardinal finds the crucified Christ "depressing.") The scene parodies the touchy-feeliness of post-Vatican II Catholicism, something the most thin-skinned Catholic has to concede is fair comedy.
After that, far more insulting satirical blasts at the Church fly thick and fast. One "Dogma" character is the 13th apostle, excluded from the Bible because he was black. Another is a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed "prophet." Yet another is revealed to be a descendant of Jesus; Smith doesn't buy the concept of "blessed Mary, ever-virgin," suggesting instead that after Jesus' birth, she and Joseph had a normal marital sexual relationship. And, predictably, God, according to Smith, is female.
Amid the relentless irreverence, the trashing of the beliefs of others, Smith forgets to let the audience in on what he believes. He claims to be Catholic - his baby daughter was christened during the first weekend "Dogma" was in theaters - but is he? As one character remarks, "It doesn't matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith." Now there's an inspiring (and, sadly, quintessentially modern) credo.
Plenty of critics raved about "Dogma." In so doing, one, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, revealed a breathtaking incomprehension of religion and cinema: "Whenever a movie is pilloried by religious protesters, it inevitably turns out to be one of the rare films of genuine religious feeling. Movies such as 'The Last Temptation of Christ' or 'Priest' are powerful because of how deeply they come to grips with the inordinate demands of faith. [Emphasis in original.] Maybe that's why they aroused such ire: They're too honest to make being a good Christian look easy."
Then there's "The Messenger." Can anyone question that the Joan of Arc saga is one of history's most inspiring, wondrous stories? But this is 1999, and when the trailer tells you that this movie will have "a '90s edge," it's shorthand meaning that history - and truth - are irrelevant.
When a young Joan tells her confessor of her conversations with the Child Jesus, we see the boy - eerie, sullen. In time the boy becomes the man, still impassive, and while at first glance he looks like the Jesus of history, a close-up shows cold, even menacing eyes. And the "voices"? First the sound of...wind. Later, a guttural animal roar.
As if that isn't obnoxious enough, the Jesus figure is ultimately replaced by Joan's conscience - why Dustin Hoffman took this role, I'll never understand - who behaves more like her psychobabbling therapist. Among other things, he suggests that her motivation wasn't God's calling but rather vengeance - an English soldier raped and murdered her sister - and egomania. And as for what Joan took as divine signs, the conscience tells her, "You didn't see what was. You saw what you wanted to see."
A recent New Yorker piece reported that "the post-modern folk are on [Joan's] trail: the women's-studies people, the queer-studies people, the deconstructionists. (In a recent essay Steven Weiskopf, of Indiana University, finds that Joan fits a 'paradigm of abyssal indeterminacy.')...Three more movies are reportedly in the works. Madonna and Sinead O'Connor have both said they'd like to play the Maid."
Madonna, the professional anti-Virgin and anti-Catholic, as Joan? O'Connor, who calls Pope John Paul II "the real enemy," as Joan? God help us all.