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(We're re-posting our review of Religulous from the Toronto Film Festival to coincide with the film's theatrical release this week)
By: James Rocchi
I contend we are both atheists; I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours. -- Stephen F. Roberts
In Religulous, stand-up social commentator Bill Maher doesn't just assert how he believes in one less god than many of us, and he doesn't just craft bold, bizarre and hilarious moments of comedy and discussion with the help of director Larry Charles (Borat). More importantly, and more intriguingly, Maher states the film's thesis in an introduction filmed at Megiddo, the prophesied location of the final battle of Armageddon as written in Revelation; Maher, much like author Sam Harris does in his excellent (if dry) book The End of Faith, proposes that religious belief, in an age of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, actively endangers humanity through encouraging conflict, promising rewards for irrational behavior, justifying artificial divisions and enabling other unfounded and unkind forms of thinking. Or, as Maher succinctly puts it early on, "When Revelations was written, only God had the power to destroy the world. ..."
And then the opening titles kick in, a montage of Maher globe-trotting in search of people to talk to, and as the guitar riffs of The Who's "The Seeker" ring out, we recognize that we're going to get plenty of sizzle along with the steak in Religulous, lots of showbusiness to liven up the soul-searching. Like most documentaries dealing with weighty matters, though, the concern in Religulous isn't that there'll be no sizzle with the steak but rather if there'll be steak to go with the sizzle; does Religulous have the right ratio of factual points to funny punch lines, a balanced mix of context and comedy?
That answer will vary depending on your tastes -- I for one found some of the film's straw-man interviews, like Maher's interview with the figurehead of an Amsterdam-based church of "Cantheism" (which uses marijuana as a sacrament and seems to partake in their equivalent of communion a lot), more irritating than enlightening. What any observer will appreciate in Religulous, though, is the bravery, bravado and blunt force Maher and Charles bring to the film. Maher interviews the Rev. Jeremiah Cummings, an ex-member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and inquires about Cummings' well-heeled appearance. Cummings tells Maher "The people want you to live well. ..." Maher counters instantly: "That's what pimps say about their women."
But if Religulous were just a series of these kind of confrontations (and there are several of them, with Christians and Jews and Muslims and Mormons and more; Maher goes out of his way to be an equal-opportunity provocateur) it would quickly grow stale. Religulous also mixes in inventively shot and cut digressions about everything from the percentage of the American population represented by non-believers (16%, which Maher points out as a unheard, unfocused minority) to the more ornate points of Mormon theology (where the Mormon idea that Native Americans are one of the lost tribes of Israel is met with a short, sharp shock of a classic Mel Brooks clip). And just as in Borat, there are even great subtitle jokes annotating the matters at hand, like when the film points out the model triceratops wearing a saddle at a "Creation Museum," or has arrows on-screen indicating the "infidels" in a scene shot inside a mosque, or delineates the similarities between the story of Jesus and the Egyptian god Horus, fact and images cut against each other to the bouncy chords of The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian."
The fact of the matter is that, much like Super Size Me's look at fast food and big business following the publication of Fast Food Nation, Religulous is coming on the heels of much better books about the same topic -- Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. But those books were meant to be factual and informative, not informative and funny and, more depressingly, who reads these days, anyhow? Religulous will certainly inspire controversy; whether or not it will inspire actual conversation is yet to be seen.
Religulous will not inspire any person of faith to give up their beliefs, of course -- and whether you see that as a demonstration of unyielding devotion or unthinking dogma will, again, depend on your point of view -- but Maher and Charles, to their credit, seem to be focusing their film more at challenging non-believers than believers. Maher's big finish for Religulous is tonally very similar to the way he closes out his HBO show Real Time -- a stern, serious discussion that follows the jokes like serving broccoli after dessert -- where Maher's line of argument is that non-believers need to step up, speak out and be heard to try and change the course of public opinion, that religious 'moderates' need to see their behavior as dangerous, enabling complicity that helps empower radical elements which cannot go unnoticed or unchallenged in an age where, as Maher puts it, "We learned to precipitate mass death before we got over the neurological disorder of wishing for it." And Maher also -- in his own words, in his own way -- conveys the conflict felt by every non-believer who would like to believe in a just, kind and loving god but can't. Religulous is full of contradictions -- it's a funny film about some depressing things, it's a lighthearted tour through terrorism, injustice and intolerance. But those contradiction and challenges are, ultimately, what make the film linger uneasily in your mind, reaching past comedy and confrontation to challenge the audience with a fierce and forceful prayer that there might be no god.
For more on Religulous, see our interview with Bill Maher