Popular films such as Dogma and Stigmata, while made to entertain more than educate, send a very important message to their viewers: and that is that the current ‘message’ is wrong. Both films deal with hypocrisy in the Catholic Church, and the need for religious groups to evolve along with society.
Kevin Smith’s Dogma deals with a confused modern faith where the old rules of religion contradict with the new rules of society. Cardinal Glick, played by the late George Carlin, attempts to update the church by modernising it through ‘Catholicism Wow!’ and the ‘Buddy Christ’: an image of Jesus winking and giving the thumbs up. Glick is not doing this so that modern Christians can understand their religion better; he is doing it for publicity. His techniques are similar to those of large franchises, with the Buddy Christ slightly reminiscent of Ronald McDonald. His “hook ‘em while they’re young” mentality sounds more like an advertiser than a man trying to bring the Word of God to the masses.
Dogma features a host of heavenly and demonic characters, including God as played by musician Alanis Morrisette. When asked why we are here, God pokes Bethany in the nose and makes a silly sound. There is no plan; we are here only because God loves us and possibly finds us amusing enough to keep around. There is no need to follow a strict set of rules other than to be a good sort of person. We should, in the words of Abraham Lincoln in 1990 film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “be excellent to each other and party on, dudes.” (3)
The thirteenth disciple Rufus, a black man written out of the Gospels because of his colour, speaks of how the message got confused. Christianity was never meant to be a religion, but just “a good idea” of how people should live their lives. “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth: new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.” (1)
The ex-muse Serendipity, played by Salma Hayek, has some of the most insightful things to say about organised religion. “When are you people going to learn? It’s not about who’s right or wrong. No denomination’s nailed it yet, and they never will because they’re all too self-righteous to realise that it doesn’t matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains need to wake up.” (1) Serendipity speaks of faith rather than religion, an idea being more and more accepted particularly by younger believers. She also says: “I have issues with anyone who treats faith as a burden instead of a blessing. You people don’t celebrate your faith: you mourn it.” (1)
Stigmata handles the concept of a church refusing to believe its most beloved of messengers, Jesus Christ. The spirit of an excommunicated stigmatic monk who had been translating a Gospel before he died possesses a young woman, Frankie. The Gospel contains Jesus’ direct instructions on how to run the Christian Church after his death. It opens with the lines: “The Kingdom of God lies inside you and all around you, not in mansions of wood and stone. Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me.” (2) The message in the Gospel contradicts so many of the guidelines set out by the Church that a cover-up is attempted so that the Church will not lose its power. Cardinal Houseman, played by Jonathon Pryce, goes so far as to try and kill Frankie to keep the Gospel’s message secret.
Frankie, played by Medium’s Patricia Arquette, is an atheist who has no respect for the Catholic Church. She attempts to seduce Father Kiernan, who is played by Gabriel Byrne. Kiernan is sent to discover the reasons for the Stigmata appearing on her body, but he suffers from a crippling crisis of faith. The possession and Stigmata almost kill Frankie, and by the end of the film she has formed a special sort of belief due to what happens to her. “You know what’s scarier than not believing in God? Believing in him. I mean, really believing in him. It’s a f***ing terrifying thought.”(2) It is unclear where Frankie’s life is headed after Father Alameida’s spirit leaves her, but it seems likely that she would go on to live a highly spiritual life along with Father Kiernan, who is unlikely to stay with the priesthood after what he has witnessed. Together they may travel and spread the true word of Jesus Christ, but it seems more likely that Frankie would prefer to return to a relatively normal life: she is not the preaching type.
Stigmata is much like Dogma in the way that they both attempt to turn people away from strict rules and overbearing Church doctrine, and focus more on individual faith. While neither film is completely anti-Catholic, they both portray Catholicism and other major religions as flawed. The films suggest it is time to update humanity’s concept of religion. Atrocities are being committed in the name of God every day. It is time to step back and discover what we truly believe.
(1) Smith, K. (1999) Dogma, Dir. Smith, K.
(2) Lorenzo, T. (1999) Stigmata, Dir. Wainwright, R.
(3) Matheson, C & Solomon, E (1990) Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Dir. Herek, S.