The two parts of the Catholic double feature now in theaters – Luc Besson’s old-style Hollywood epic, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and Kevin Smith’s irreverent ecclesiastical farce, Dogma – seem to have little in common. Yet both have the same idea at their core: that faith and God have been corrupted by the church’s earthly concerns.
It would be difficult to find two more different filmmakers than Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) and Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy). So it’s an odd bit of synchronicity to find them both covering the same thematic territory in ambitious, long (141 and 125 minutes respectively), wide-screen films which assert that, yes, there is a God, despite the corruption of the message by a religion which burns heretics at the stake.
In his version of the life story of national heroine Jeanne d’Arc, Frenchman Luc Besson pulls out all the visual stops, creating an array of ecstatic visions, but choosing to leave her fabled divine voices unheard. That is, until Dustin Hoffman appears as the embodiment of her conscience – just one of the oddball touches that makes this Joan, played by Besson’s wife, Milla Jovovich, a navel-gazing creature of today instead of the 15th century virgin warrior who "saved France."
Pouty and petulant, screaming and stamping her feet when she doesn’t get her way, Jovovich plays Joan as a woman who’s both possessed and woefully unable to understand what’s expected of her. And, as if being an illiterate peasant woman weren’t a big enough obstacle to leading an army, Besson and co-screenwriter Andrew Birkin personalize her victimization by having a young Joan witness the particularly vicious rape of her (fictitious) older sister by English soldiers.
The dizzying array of accents of this international cast – all conveniently speaking English – only adds to the impression that The Messenger is a Hollywood biopic at its most grandiose and unconvincing. Luc Besson’s battle sequences are his strongest, but even then, when Milla Jovovich’s usually tremulous, whiny Joan becomes steely-eyed and calls for all the soldiers who love her to follow her – possibly to their deaths – it’s unclear why anyone would want to do either.
Dogma manages to be simultaneously breezy and pedantic, and once again highlights the fact that Kevin Smith is a gifted screenwriter and mediocre director. The performances in this ensemble film are all over the place, yet each character is distinctively a Smith creation: overarticulate and pulled apart by internal conflicts.
Like Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a practicing Catholic working at an abortion clinic who cannot bring herself to repudiate the church because it means turning her back on God. Yet it’s Bethany who’s visited by the angel Metatron (Alan Rickman) who says she was chosen to stop two of his earthbound renegade brethren, fallen angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), from returning to heaven. Their ascendance would prove God fallible and thereby erase all existence (including, apparently, anyone or anything that didn’t believe in the Catholic deity).
Her motley crew of aides includes Smith stalwarts Jay and Silent Bob (foul-mouthed Jason Mewes and the stoic director), the 13th apostle, Rufus (Chris Rock), edited out of the Bible by racist scribes, and muse-turned-stripper Serendipity (Salma Hayek).
Overstuffed with arcane information, Dogma seems like a Catholic schoolboy’s revenge for having to memorize the hierarchy of angels. Yet Kevin Smith, skeptic and believer, is doing something quite rare these days: He’s airing his internal debate in public.
This makes Dogma, even more than The Messenger, about the struggle of faith in a world that offers little to believe in.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.