Grandma sees "Dogma"

A devout Catholic braves alleged blasphemy, much profanity and partial nudity to see Kevin Smith's latest -- and gives it a thumbs up.

Published November 9, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

When Pope John Paul II visited San Francisco in 1987, more than 63,000 people made the pilgrimage to Candlestick Park to see him. Among them were a handful of Catholics who had been chosen, one from each Bay Area parish, to take communion from the Holy Father. Marian Sweeney, the widowed mother of six and a beloved pillar of St. Robert's Church in San Bruno, was among them.

Today she is 71, the grandmother of 13, a lay minister at St. Robert's, a docent at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, a volunteer at Sisters of Mercy Convent bookstore and, as always, a woman of deep and abiding faith in God and the Catholic faith.

She is also my mother-in-law and something of a movie fan. In fact, after receiving communion from the pope, an honor that she never in her life imagined she would enjoy, the only person she truly aspired to meet was Gregory Peck. Her experience of film is not exactly broad -- her decisions of what to see were guided by Catholic censors of the Legion of Decency until it disbanded in the early-'60s. But she still tries to see every best picture nominee before Oscar night.

What better person, then, to preview "Dogma," Kevin Smith's biblical parable for the millennium?

Few, if any, of the Catholics protesting the movie have actually seen it. Yet according to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the film is a prime example of "Catholic bashing." And Raymond Drake, president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, told a reporter at a recent protest of the film, "'Dogma' is a blasphemous movie that mocks and scorns everything that is holy to Catholics."

I decided to take my mother-in-law to a screening of "Dogma." (She had to switch her volunteer day at Sisters of Mercy to get there, but that was OK.) She hadn't heard of Kevin Smith (or his movies "Clerks" or "Chasing Amy"), nor had she heard of anybody else in the movie, except, I learned later, George Carlin. I began to regret my invitation when the F-word was shouted for the millionth time -- by angels, prophets and a direct descendent of Jesus -- but Marian made no move for the door.

This is what she had to say when it was over.

Were you aware of the Catholic "discomfort" about this film?

I hadn't heard anything. I hadn't seen any previews and the parish I'm in doesn't really do that. It probably will be in the San Francisco Catholic [a weekly publication] and I read that. But I didn't know that the man who made it was Catholic until you told me.

How often do you follow the recommendations of Catholic groups like the ones protesting this film?

Well, I didn't go see "The Last Temptation of Christ." I didn't like the idea of a wimpy Christ. I thought, "I'm not going to pay money for this."

I like to know what [the protesting groups] are talking about. At one time I would have used the Legion of Decency list to decide what to see. That is something that I really followed. When they said, "Don't go," I didn't go. But, I think a lot of Catholics are past that. I do have that old-fashioned thing of not wanting to support something I don't approve of -- I feel like I can watch it on TV to see what it's about, but not give money to the producer.

A disclaimer appears at the beginning of "Dogma" to remind viewers that the film is "a work of comedic fantasy, not to be taken seriously." Did that bother you or scare you?

I felt as if they were really trying to prepare you for the comedy or farce or whatever; that they were saying it was something that was supposed to be funny, not ridiculing church. But that is in the eye of the beholder.

I thought it was trying to make it more acceptable and that kind of turned me off, that they were just approaching a certain group of people who might be bothered. It's kind of putting down Catholics.

What was your reaction to George Carlin as the archbishop? And what about the campaign to revive interest in the church, "Catholicism Wow!" complete with "the buddy Jesus"?

I did recognize George Carlin; I just let it go over me. He was just so funny. He was everything that most archbishops would be and he said a lot of things that are said that should not be said. That stupid face on the Christ statue -- it seemed like today's cartoons when everything has the look of being artificial. It turned me off but I didn't think it was blasphemous.

I think some Catholics will say that he [Kevin Smith] is picking on us. I think it went over the line, but it was just silly foolish to me. I wasn't offended. I have friends who would be, but I wasn't. It was a comedy, after all.

What about Bethany [the lead played by Linda Fiorentino] being a Catholic with a special mission who actually works at an abortion clinic?

I felt like, that was where she was, where she ended up getting a job. She was not out to harm people and I am sure it caused great grievance with her conscience. In the movie, she is fighting this thing, this struggle with belief, with her faith. Her life has been sour for a while but she is going to church, she is seeking.

What about the angel Metatron [played by Alan Rickman]? Is it fair to have a British guy with questionable teeth delivering the word of God?

That's what I saw as the farce! It was a kind of comedy routine, yet I could still listen to the words. He had a wonderful voice. As a child, I grew up hearing about angels, that was the teaching at the time.

Now I have my own version of God, not a direct figure, so much. But I love the idea of angels. It is a wonderful thing to think that you have someone there protecting you there in good times and bad.

What about one of the characters saying that Noah was a drunk, and all the gags about biblical characters? The idea that Jesus was black or that God is a woman? Is that going too far?

Well, Bible stories are stories, stories that have been handed down through time. The twists and turns didn't offend me. I think the movie brought up things that people haven't thought about for years. It was comedy but it was serious in what it talked about.

I have no qualms with the female choice for God. It was just another thing in the story. How would I know? And the idea that Jesus was black didn't bother me at all. Even the part where they said he had brothers and sisters. People say [Joseph and Mary] were chaste. But I've believed as an adult, well, if they did something, that was fine. I don't know what dogma I'm against when I say this.

And he [Smith] did acknowledge the virgin birth.

Were you ever hurt or angered, as a Catholic, during the movie?

I would never speak for everyone and I don't have an angry nature. I know it will disturb a lot of people, but there were so many good things said in the film. People need the ability to sift through and hear the good.

There were a lot of things in "Dogma" that today's intelligentsia would bring up, things I barely consider important anymore. For me the important thing is to love God and love our neighbors.

What kind of harm can this do to the Catholic Church?

I think there are people who will see it as doing harm, because they feel like the church is being picked on. Sometimes I think, "Holy cow, isn't there anyone else to pick on?" There will always be good and bad in the church, because people are human beings. It can't harm me, it can't harm people like me. We are growing with new knowledge every day and the knowledge brings us toward something. There were so many things in the movie. I take the good parts and shed the rest, and that is what I hope young people do.

It's a far cry from the old Bing Crosby movies, that's for sure.

Kevin Smith calls this movie an affirmation of his faith. Could you ever see it that way?

There were wonderful things said in the movie, wonderful things, and there were scenes where I could feel that he was Catholic. I think he knew that people who believe would see the mockery in the movie and understand what he was trying to say about faith.

It seems like he is a very young man, an innocent, who believes but wants concrete proof. He wants a miracle. You could see it.

But if you take religion on faith, you don't need concrete proof. Faith is a gift, a wonderful gift. I have this little picture of Christ knocking on a door. The door has no handle, because only we can open the door. It is about faith.

I should send him the card.

Was there a high point in the movie for you? A low point?

The scene I love is where Bethany falls into the water and she is so angry and so tired. She says she hates God and the angel comes to her to tell her mission. His words were so incredibly beautiful. He says that her life is sad but that in having faith she will be more herself, not less. I never took him, any of them, as real angels. It was more like a story to me. Maybe a modern biblical story. But there were times when you could see belief or faith in Bethany's face and that was very moving.

The problem was the violence. Not so much in light of religion. But just the violence, period. I think, in the end, it overwhelmed the religious message. He was saying that there is a higher power, that people can have faith, can fully believe, but it just got lost for me in the violence and the noise.

It is possible that the most profane characters in the film were the two prophets [played by Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith] who happen to be foul-mouthed stoners. That's got to hurt.

You know, I thought, here are these two goofy guys and they have it, they have faith, in a way. Sometimes it's just how you've been raised. Not everyone is from the Irish-Catholic ghetto. And it is interesting to see all different kinds of faithful.

All that one of them was interested in was sex, and yet I felt that there was something inside his spirit, and in the other one's spirit that just hadn't developed yet. With life experiences, who knows what will happen down the line? In a strange way, they were joyous.

I did feel, speaking as an older woman, that, good heavens, people are just bombarded with offensive language these days. I know many people who would be offended by the four-letter words. I myself don't like them at all; they seem unnecessary. But I think, in this movie, it is worth it to let that go and hear what is said.

Without giving away the ending, how did you feel when it was over?

I liked it, but I thought the ending could have been more filling; I wanted something that would fill me a little bit more with a spiritual feeling that I think he came close to creating often in the movie.

But there were so many things to be discussed -- every single scene. He explained a lot -- some things that I had forgotten because I am more of a New Testament person, things I hadn't thought about for a long time or hadn't thought of at all. It was amazing some of the things he brought up. It was deep -- very deep -- and also very religious.

I would love to find a priest to discuss it with.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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