Dogma is the fourth film from writer-director Kevin Smith, who has directed his share of smartass little movies: “Clerks” is a cheap but clever situation comedy, “Mallrats” is mostly a misfire but it has its moments, and “Chasing Amy” is a clumsily directed but funny and insightful anti-romantic comedy. Yet none of these quite reach the achievement of “Dogma”, which balances marvelously Smith’ filthy humor and his daring intelligence. Here’s a film which, more than being a satire of Catholicism, is about how “it’s better to have ideas than beliefs, because you can change ideas.”

The premise of the movie is that every single word in the Bible is taken for granted by the characters. It leads naturally to surreal situations, delightfully over-the-top humor, and a lot of thought-provoking dialogue. You get to see that if you take anything to its extreme without questioning it, it leads to chaos. It all starts as two angels (played by real-life Smith pals Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) stranded to earth for eternity after they defied God’s Word, find a loophole in Christian dogma that could get them back into heaven. But that would mean that God is or was wrong, either way all Creation would cease to exist. It’s up to the last Zion (Linda Fiorentino), to save the world from coming to an end. How ironic that she is the last chance of the Catholic mystic figures, since she works in an abortion clinic and has lost faith!

The film has the smartass Fiorentino wisecracking her way to redemption, with the help of a cast of goofballs of all kinds. There’s Alan Rickman as a sorta bitter angel who speaks on behalf of God (who is played by alt-rock diva Alanis Morissette, thanks to a wonderfully witty casting flash from Smith), foul-mouthed but fall-off-your-seat hilarious comedian Chris Rock as Rufus, the 13th apostle who was left out of the Bible because he’s black, Mexican bombshell Salma Hayek as a Muse turned stripper (don’t miss that nice & kinky scene!), and George Carlin as a priest more preoccupied with marketing and golf than with his church. Last but not least are Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), who steal a great deal out of Smith’s four movies. They’re so funny! You got Jay who never stops bullshitting and cursing about various teenage hobbies like toking, jacking off and comic books, and then there’s Silent Bob, who says but a few words by film but remains funnier and more expressive than many. He’s the ultimate straight man. Here, Smith has them portraying unaware prophets who “help” Fiorentino in her journey.

What makes “Dogma” such a powerful satire is how well written it is. Smith really layers his characters and make them contradictory, multi-dimensional, basically, real. Even if they’re angels or from other realms of reality, you buy it because they’re written so carefully. Plus, by consistently and constantly basing himself on the Bible, Smith adds a whole new dimension to his style. You can feel the guy really cares about religion. He doesn’t want Catholicism to go down the toilet; au contraire, he tries to show what it should really be about by pointing out the absurd, shocking and amoral ways people misinterpret what God is about. God is about love, understanding, happiness. Not Holy wars, terrorism and slaughter. Smith chooses to do that through an irreverent, ambitious and exciting movie with everything from a shit demon to ultraviolence, Bible quoting and John Hughes references. Most surprisingly, Smith finally directed a “real” movie. As good as a flick like “Chasing Amy” is, it’s still lousily directed. Smith is truly growing as a filmmaker, and “Dogma” is an amazing picture. Don’t dismiss it because it’s jam packed with laughs. Comedy if often more effective at showcasing ideas than drama, as it doesn’t restrain itself from exploring even the dumbest possibilities.