I like to start my film classes (Religion & Film; Jesus at the Movies) with Dogma (1999; Dir. Kevin Smith) because it illustrates a lot of issues that can be found in other films, but in a very obvious, over-the-top way. While it is very easy to put with my Religion & Film class that I taught at Illinois College, it was at first more difficult to justify for a Jesus at the Movies class.
Of course, the film is overbrimming with biblical symbols and references: God incarnates once a month to come to earth (in this case to play skeeball), we find angels, including a Watcher named Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and the Angel of Death who flooded the earth, rained down fire and brimstone at Sodom and Gomorrah, and killed the first-born of Egypt, here named Loki (Matt Damon). If you are unfamiliar with the Watcher tradition, see the ancient Jewish text of 1 Enoch. We also meet God’s top angel, Metatron (Alan Rickman). Metatron is also an ancient Jewish tradition, considered such a great angel that he was called the “lesser YHWH.” We also meet a muse, Serendipity (Salma Hayek), who inspired the Bible (and 19 of the top 20 grossing films of all time), and one of the apostles left out of the Bible, Rufus (Chris Rock), left out because of his race. Kevin Smith’s recurring characters Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself) also become prophets in this film. References are made to Lucifer throughout, and we meet a few demons, too, including Azrael (Jason Lee). So, yes, the film is full to the brim with references to the Bible, including an equivalent to the Golden Calf (Moobie). It assumes a biblically literate audience. It also assumes a cinematically literate audience for that matter, including pop culture references to: The Ten Commandments, John Hughes films in general, James Bond, Incredible Hulk (“you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”), Home Alone, Con Air, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (“no ticket”), Star Wars, E.T., Karate Kid, Pink Panther (“Cato”), Million Dollar Man. I’m sure there’s more I’ve missed.
Despite the film having more F-bombs than any other religious-symbol-laden film, though, I decided to label it a “Christ” Film. “Jesus” films are films that follow the life of Jesus of Nazareth, adapting the gospel accounts directly or indirectly in some cases (e.g., Last Temptation of Christ), and occasionally repositioning it in a different culture (e.g., telling the Jesus story in modern Paris or South Africa). Christ films use the basic substructure and wealth of symbolism of the Jesus story and incorporate it in a film about something else. Cool Hand Luke has often been touted as a Christ film and there are many articles on the Matrix, arguing that Neo is a Christ figure with some Buddhist and Hindu features as well.
When I asked my students who the Christ figure of Dogma was, there was almost no hesitation: it was obvious to them that it was Bethany (Linda Fiorentino). The student’s evidence was similar situation: there is a direct parallel made when Bethany learns she is the “last scion,” that is, the last in a bloodline that goes all the way back to Jesus’ brothers and sisters (at a genetic level, she is the closest to Jesus in the world). Learning this new identity, she freaks out, and the Metatron has to come and help her out, telling her that he did the same thing when he revealed to the 12-year-old Jesus his true nature and destiny. So, this gives us two elements in one shot: same bloodline as Jesus and same situations in life, and responding to those situations in similar ways. At one point, Rufus tells her that, “You sound like the man.” The man being Jesus. Interestingly, while most of the cursing throughout the film is the F-bomb, sometimes around Bethany it switches to “Jesus,” or “Christ,” etc. The person will say “Jesus” as profanity, but then turn to Bethany and start speaking to her. In inflection, it is profanity, but grammatically it is direct address. For example, Bethany’s co-worker (Janeane Garofalo) does it at the beginning of the film; Loki does it at the end of the film. A similar phenomenon happens in the Matrix, where people use “Jesus” profanity around Neo, yet not at other times, again functioning dually as profanity and direct address to the Jesus figure, Neo.
These more subtle connections are strengthened at the end of the film, where, trying to “save the world” (and succeeding at it!), Bethany gets injured and dies. Her wound is in her side, perhaps an allusion to the spear in Jesus’ side in the crucifixion? When people are looking around for her, Silent Bob carries her onto the scene and briefly holds her in the pieta hold (see Michaelangelo’s Pieta, where Mary holds the body of the dead Jesus). The pieta hold is something several Jesus films have after the crucifixion scene; Gibson’s Passion of the Christ holds the pose for an uncomfortable length of time and has Mary look at the camera, making sure no one misses it. Then God (here played by Alanis Morisette) raises Bethany from the dead.
It is clear: Bethany is Christ.