Directed by Larry Charles
Starring Bill Maher, Tal Bachman,
Release Date: October 1, 2008
Religion has always been one of the few topics that seem to be off limits in our national discourse. Any mere mention of the word can set off arguments and the occasional war before the combatants can take a step back and figure out why they were fighting in the first place. So in a nation that is more openly religious than any other in the world having a civilized discussion about religious beliefs and what leads us to believe in them still remains mostly taboo. But atheists, who once were one of America’s silent minorities, are coming out strong with their balls firmly placed on the table. Books such as Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion have climbed the best seller lists. Now the atheist movement is heading full steam ahead into cinemas, and the star of Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is leading the charge.
Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time, has teamed with Larry Charles, the former Seinfeld writer and director of Borat (and also the director of the notorious Bob Dylan bomb Masked and Anonymous) to make a feature-length documentary about his favorite comedic target — organized religion — is a prospect too good to be true. Thankfully the resulting film Religulous (an appropriate amalgamation of the words “religion” and “ridiculous”) fulfills the promise that team-up would guarantee by being provocative, thought-provoking, and most importantly funny as hell.
(That last part was not a pun.)
Done in the direct, confrontational style of Michael Moore’s best docs Religulous follows Maher and Charles as they travel to various religious hot spots around the world in their pursuit of answers behind religion’s millennia-long stranglehold on humanity. Intercutting his interviews with a vast cross-section of subjects with portions of his personal backstory as a child raised in the Catholic Church despite having a mother who is Jewish, we see how Maher developed his outlook on organized religion at an early age and how he later worked it into his stand-up act with a clip from his performance on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show.
It’s perfectly evident from the beginning that Maher intends to light a fire under the collective asses of the planet’s rabidly devout. Like Moore, Maher’s a rabble-rouser and is clearly in his element here criss-crossing the globe directly questioning beliefs while inspiring the more open-minded among us to think deeply about what we believe. I’ve been an Atheist for many years and a large portion of the audience for this movie will be too. But when I went to see Religulous on Saturday I was surprised to see many in the crowd who look like the kind of people I went to church with as a child. Whether those true believers come out of the movie still full of the Holy Spirit or rushing to their nearest Barnes & Noble to pick up The God Delusion is besides the point. The movie is definitely slanted towards the Atheist point of view but Maher takes the time to explore various viewpoints. Like the comedic provocateurs such as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin who came before him, Maher is out to get people to begin dialogues and start using the brains that, oddly enough, God did not give them.
Religulous resembles the most incendiary works of Michael Moore in many ways: it’s use of music cues and humorous asides to illustrate points and often mock the interview subjects, including Maher himself by throwing in a clip from the aforementioned Cannibal Women-at one point Maher muses about what teenage Jesus must have been like and then they cut to a scene from another movie that got one of the biggest laughs at the screening I attended; the moments when Maher’s recognizibility gets him into uncomfortable situations like getting kicked out of the Vatican and being prohibited from filming in front of the Mormon Temple; and the illuminating and increasingly awkward interviews with the various religious figures Maher encounters in his journeys.
Throughout Religulous Maher takes shots at many of the major world religions including Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and even Scientology (although the last one is played mostly for laughs, as it should). Organized religion’s underlying hypocrisy is laid bare as Maher speaks with a preacher (and former member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) who wears fine clothing and expensive jewelry paid for by his congregation because he believes Jesus treated himself very well and was not the anti-capitalist the Bible portrayed him as; the leader of an Amsterdam-based religion whose members get in touch with the Lord by smoking copious amounts of marijuana; the owner of Kentucky’s Creation Museum, which features oversized dioramas of kids frolicking with dinosaurs; a Spanish priest with a 100,000 congregation who believes he is the second coming of Jesus Christ; and the two most rational people he speaks to-a pair of priests at the Vatican, one of whom runs a Vatican Planetarium and the other sporting refreshingly no-bull observations about the prevalent Catholic traditions.
Maher doesn’t shy away from hitting the Christian right head-on for their base hypocrisy and the entitlement they feel in infecting every area of American life, including government. He talks with a minister and former homosexual who believes that intense prayer and the love of a good Christian woman can convert the gayest of the gay. There’s even a visit with Mark Pryor, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, who responds to Bill’s assertations that religious beliefs shouldn’t be a criteria for getting elected to public office by basically saying that you don’t need to pass an I.Q. test to be a senator.
One of the many points made by the film that pretty much speaks for itself is that people are willing to take the messages contained in the Bible including Christ’s teachings and warp them to fit their own hateful worldviews and then have the nerve to say the reason they hold these disgusting beliefs is because they’re in the Bible. Maybe I’m wrong, but like Maher I too was raised in the church and never bought the whole story of God, the naked lady, and the snake, fitting two of every animal in existence on a wooden boat, and so on. It sounded too fantastical to me even though I have always been heavily into flights of imagination.
There’s going to be intense debate about this film and Maher, Charles, and the others involved in the production of Religulous are facing potential attacks from all sides for even daring to question the existence of God. But you cannot deny that Religulous, while not a perfect movie, is one of the finer documentaries we will see this year and one of the ballsiest films in some time. Let the dialogue begin.
The views and opinions expressed in this review do not reflect those of the staff of Geeks of Doom.
Have fun. Until next time I remain….BAADASSSSS!