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Film Review: Religulous

Religulous (2008; Directed by Larry Charles)

Rationally or even tempermentally, it’s difficult for me to disagree with Bill Maher’s inelegant central points in his clumsily-titled anti-faith documentary Religulous. The mythological underpinnings of every major religion (and most mid-level ones as well) are patently ridiculous, and their beliefs are contradictory when they aren’t openly prejudiced and restrictive (and often when they are). If I can’t quite echo his assertion that religion is a social poison (I’d rather label the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, and the work of J.R.R. Tolkien as cures, of at least balms), the thrust of his arguments and his attempt to shift the Overton Window on the question of belief in America is at least appreciated.

But even if I can nod along with Maher’s championing of thoughtful doubt over thoughtless certainty, the way he chooses to express it in Religulous relies on smug, snide superiority and glib dismissiveness. Directed by former Seinfeld writer and frequent Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator Larry Charles (who appears in a scene or two, looking like an Orthodox Jew raised by wolves in the Appalachians), this is a film that very much reflects its star/host/master of ceremonies. Much like his talk shows Politically Incorrect and Real Time, Religulous always has to let Maher have the last word. If he can’t find a way to have it in face-to-face filmed encounters with a rogue’s gallery of unbelievable believers, then he’ll have it afterwards, behind their backs, in the discursive safety of the production’s van.

Maher also doesn’t do his subject any favours with his brand of humour. As a comic well into middle age, he too regularly falls back onto the broad ethnic, gender, and subcultural stereotypes of his longtime milieu of late-night Borscht Belt boomer comedy. There are several egregious and even downright racist examples to draw upon to reinforce this impression. But none are less flattering than two interview sequences: the first with a charismatic African-American evangelical preacher and former R&B singer that is intercut with quick-flash blaxploitation clips of ghetto pimps, and the second with a Latino-American millenarian huckster selling himself as the Second Coming of Christ that is punctuated with quotes from Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface. The Jewish jokes are also pretty anti-Semitic in character (Maher is half-Jewish, but that doesn’t give him the carte blanche he thinks it does), and his entire section on Islam is reactionary in the extreme.

Religulous simultaneously covers too much ground and too little. The tenets of the American religions, Mormonism and Scientology, flutter by in a litany of wacky factoids, the latter poured out by a disguised Maher as the ravings of a mentally-unhinged Speakers Corner ranter in London’s Hyde Park. Judaism, its denizens so long oppressed and dispossessed, is treated with relative kids gloves; only a radical anti-Zionist rabbi appears as representative of its nutty fringes. Christianity, however, provides most of the oxygen for Maher’s fire of secular indignation, as well as plentiful eccentric interview subjects across America’s Bible Belt. He awkwardly (inadvertently?) comes onto a former gay man who now “cures” homosexuals, and probes at the firmly-held beliefs of a Creationist museum curator, an Ex-Jews for Jesus recruiter who professes to live a life of miracles, and an actor who plays Jesus at a Florida religious theme park called Holy Land.

They mostly spout half-literate Evangelical dogma and stare stonily at Maher’s attempted jokes (late-night comics are often exposed without their studio audiences and supplementary laugh tracks). Much more amusing are the pair of Catholic functionaries who agree to speak with him at the Vatican; one is a witty church astronomer who fillets “Creation Science” with skill, the other a realistic proletarian priest amusingly resigned to his church’s nonsensical ecclesiastical concepts. Even if a viewer spend half of the interviews wishing Maher was not such a condescending twit, his vector of challenge leads to some fascinating exchanges and self-justifying defenses of blind faith.

Maher begins Religulous sitting in his former church with two of his similarly-lapsed-Catholic family members, speaking with directness about how he lost his faith and came to where he is at. It’s a rare moment of personal honesty from a comic who relies heavily on a tone of priggish know-it-all-ism at most times, as is a later moment of near-vulnerability where he admits to half-praying for divine aid in quitting cigarettes years before. In these moments (the former which recalls Michael Moore’s admission at the start of the anti-firearm Bowling for Columbine that he is a member of the NRA), he scrapes at the surface of possible arguments for the validity of faith: as a key aspect of communal bonding experiences and as a source of solace in times of private anguish. That Maher spends most of the rest of his anti-faith cinematic statement focusing on applying a rational calculus to religious mythology when he’s not openly mocking belief as a harmful mass delusion makes it seem as if he misses the point, to some extent, despite moments of inspired documentary lunacy. In Religulous, Bill Maher shows quite definitely that you don’t need to be sanctified in order to be sanctimonious.

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Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews
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