Dir: Larry Charles. US. 2008. 100mins.
A blunt satiric object applied to delicate subject matter, Religulous is a consistently funny if one-sided putdown of society’s blind devotion to its many religious faiths. In the hands of Borat director Larry Charles and American political comedian Bill Maher, the documentary occasionally scores easy laughs by catering to its audience’s liberal prejudices, but there’s no disputing that this irreverent survey of weak-minded followers and manipulative spiritual leaders raises upsetting questions about the influence that faith has in shaping the future of the planet.
Religulous opens in the US October 3 after its Toronto premiere and Lionsgate is no doubt hoping the film will be a cause celèbre in this contentious presidential election year. Maher, best known for hosting the US cable roundtable show Real Time With Bill Maher, will attract the Michael Moore crowd, while director Larry Charles’s connection to the outlandish Borat could rope in adult audiences hoping for similarly edgy humour. But considering the low commercial ceiling for political documentaries, expectations should be severely tempered - mainstream crossover success might require a miracle.
Maher, who grew up with a Jewish mother and Catholic father, long ago renounced any belief in a higher power, a subject he tackled in his standup comedy during the 1980s. Followed by director Larry Charles and a camera crew, Maher travels across the globe, including stops in Amsterdam, the Vatican and Jerusalem, interviewing different religious figures to question their belief systems.
Arguably, audiences going to Religulous don’t want to learn more about the interconnection between different faiths but rather want to validate their own suspicions about organized religion. And Maher and Charles, to the documentary’s detriment, sometimes are too happy to oblige, resorting to comedic cheap shots with their interviewees. The film-makers wield two of the most overused staples of modern-day comic documentaries: cutting away to random gags that mock their subjects’ serious words and holding on their subjects’ faces long after they’ve stopped speaking, making them look foolish.
Granted, some of these talking heads are hypocrites deserving of scorn, but while Maher insists at the film’s outset that he’s just looking for answers, what comes across pretty quickly is that Maher already knows how he feels about this subject.
Like last year’s controversial abortion documentary LakeOf Fire, Religulous is best when it allows some gray into its black-and-white debate, showing how some believers struggle with the discrepancies in their faith. A retired priest and a Vatican astronomer are two of the film’s best interviewees, as the men eloquently discuss how the Bible isn’t a historical document but rather a guide to a moral life - a reasonable notion that has been ignored by organized religion in order to discourage scientific discovery and promote destructive agendas, such as the vilification of homosexuals.
While part of the fun of Maher’s approach is to watch him take out targets like an evangelical US senator, Religulous is a lot more interesting when Maher talks to a group of religious truck drivers, whose faith is sincere and touching, allowing for a real exchange of differing opinions.
Despite its limitations, Religulous overwhelmingly makes the argument that organized religion has by and large caused more harm than good. Though Christianity receives the majority of the brickbats, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and Scientology are not spared Maher’s treatment. While it would be too much to ask a 100-minute movie to be authoritative on such a nuanced topic, the film’s willingness to wander from joke to joke sometimes stalls the film’s intellectual momentum.
And though Religulous is a comedy first and foremost, Maher’s impassioned closing speech about the need to abolish religion as the only way to save humanity indicates the serious intention beneath the humour. He may be preaching to the converted, but unlike some of the self-serving religious leaders he comes across, at least his sermon is entirely heartfelt.
Jeffrey M Werner