Popular media has always been a great way for people to express their opinions or criticisms towards institutions in place at a moment in time. Religion has not been immune to this criticism and instead is often attacked or mocked blatantly through movies or television shows. Some of the harshest critics are comedy writers. The writers know what their intended audience expects before they even start writing the script. This allows them to be more transparent with their religious metaphors. Two movies that criticize religion while still keeping their mass appeal are Dogma and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
Dogma is about two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who try to regain entry into heaven after being banished to serve all eternity in Wisconsin, according to them a punishment worse than Hell. However, a rogue demon Azrael (Jason Lee), informs them of a way to regain entry into heaven. Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) starts a campaign to regain church attendance entitled “catholic WOW”.
This campaign decrees that anyone who steps foot into the St. Michael’s church is forgiven of all sins. With the help of a papal sanction, the campaign begins. Loki and Bartleby plan to step through the church then immediately transubstantiate into human form by cutting off their wings. If they die as humans free of all sins, they will immediately be granted entry into heaven thus proving God’s banishment invalid and fallible. If God is proved infallible all creation will cease to exist and be undone.
God sends two prophets, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Bob (Kevin Smith), along with Rufus (Chris Rock) to lead the last Zion, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), to find Loki and Bartelby and prevent them from undoing reality (Dogma).
Even though the movie was written purely as a comedy, many people have taken offense to its obvious criticism of Catholicism. The Catholic League has protested the movie and demonized its director Kevin Smith and producer Scott Mosier as catholic hating Jews. At the time of CNN’s article, the movie had not been released; yet both Smith and Mosier had received multiple death threats and personal attacks (Allen).
Even with all of this controversy, the movie does try to stick true to Catholic teaching. The director tried to use biblical figures when possible. A prime example of this is how Bethany never spoke to God directly. Instead, she spoke to Metatron (Alan Rickman), an angel of the highest order who came into her room in the form of fire. Bethany immediately grabbed her fire extinguisher and tried to put him out. This small scene is a clear allusion to the biblical story of God speaking to Moses in the form of a burning bush (Dogma).
Another comedy based upon a religious story is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. In The Life of Brian, Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) is a Jewish man born in a stable close to Jesus. Originally mistaken for Jesus by the wise men, Brian grows up to hate the roman government. He eventually attends Jesus’ (Kenneth Colley) sermon on the mound where he meets Judith (Sue Jones-Davies) a young woman who he is immediately attracted towards.
Judith introduces him to the People's Front of Judea, a group that wants to remove the Romans from Judea. While working with the people’s front he is mistaken as the Messiah. No matter what small thing he does, his followers immediately take it as a miracle even though he tries to convince them otherwise. Eventually he is captured and put to death by crucifixion (The Life of Brian).
The Life of Brian never does not try to convert people or turn them away from religion, but simply tries to entertain. Even though it was well received overall and has claimed the title of the funniest comedy of all time on many different lists, not every area accepted this movie as easily. It was banned in parts of Britain by the local authorities and not allowed to be shown in cinemas.
It took almost thirty years for The Life of Brian to be shown in some British cinemas. In 2008, the film was finally shown in the British city of Torbay (BBC News “Python movie 'ban' finally lifted”).
Though a relatively small city, it was still a big win. A year later, the film was shown in Aberystwyth, another city in the UK (Yapp)
Both Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and Dogma are critical of religion in their own ways. Dogma does not directly attack the Catholic Church, but does bring up many flaws that it contains. It does so while not sounding preachy and still being able to keep a lighthearted sense of humour towards the entire situation.
The Life of Brian performs a similar task, but does not stress Catholicism as much as Dogma does. Instead, it tries to run the fine line between blasphemy and comedy. To some conservatives it might seem like it failed, but to its intended audience, it hit the perfect sweet spot.
Allen, Jamie. "CNN - 'Dogma' director faces down Catholic criticism - September 17, 1999." CNN. 19 Sept. 1999. Web. 22 Aug. 2009.
"BBC NEWS Python movie 'ban' finally lifted." BBC NEWS. 24 Sept. 2008. Web. 22 Aug. 2009.
Dogma. Dir. Kevin Smith. Perf. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Lions Gate Films, 1999. DVD.
The Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones. Paramount Studios Home Video, 1979. DVD.
Yapp, Carl. "BBC NEWS Python stars for special showing." BBC NEWS. 27 Feb. 2009. Web. 22 Aug. 2009