Reviewed by Henry B. Rosenbush
Religious skepticism never looked as good as in Religulous, a documentary that veers from serious subtext to satire and back again. Talk show host and comedian Bill Maher travels the world in search of religious legitimacy and in the process finds plenty of flaws in the factuality of believers.
Director Larry Charles previous film, the hit Borat, with Sacha Baron Cohen used a similar framing device of a fish out of water interviewer who feigns idiocy to make a serious social, political and satirical rationale from an unsuspecting public.
Maher, born and raised Catholic he learned at age 13 he was half Jewish has invited us to join him on a quest that begins in Megiddo, Israel where according to biblical prophecy, the world will end when Christ returns. Segueing into The Who’s The Seeker for the opening credit sequence, it is clear from the outset Religulous is not a conventional documentary; it is more of a hybrid, like a docu-comedy where serious issues are blatantly circumvented by Maher’s acerbic approach to interviewing.
Music plays an important role with country and western, religious, rock and Middle Eastern melodies underlying specific points and amusing subtitles are occasionally cued to inspire laughter and signify the oft irrational responses of Maher’s subjects. Charles mixes stock footage from movies, religious television programming and other documentaries to excellent effect.
There are sobering scenes especially with a radical Muslim whose point of view is indefensible and frightening: rapper Propa-Gandhi chastises Salman Rushdie, controversial author of the novel The Satanic Verses (1988) claiming he deserved the fatwa delivered by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi’a Muslim scholar, calling for Rushdie and his publishers to be killed.
Propa-Gandhi’s music videos displayed a violent, terrorist motif and the rapper refused to agree with Maher that Rushdie deserved the same freedom of speech that P-G enjoyed.
Throughout the film, Maher never allows his subjects to pontificate and in a variation on Bill O’Reilly’s No Spin Zone interrupts whenever his questions are either unanswered or whenever they stray from his original inquiry.
Maher travels to interview scholars at the holiest Jerusalem sites and visits a Raleigh, NC truck stop church – a converted trailer – to discuss Jesus and whether he even existed. In Orlando, FL Maher interviews “Jesus” at the Holy Land theme park that presented a musical revue that was clearly not on the talent level of Jesus Christ Superstar but did offer one female participant who believed she’d return after the Rapture riding on a white horse.
There is another bizarre moment where Maher sits while casually smoking a joint in Amsterdam with a decidedly stoned interviewee who is seated with candles behind his head. The man makes a claim to marijuana smoking as a form of religious freedom. Suddenly, and obviously unrehearsed, Maher pulls the man away from the candles which have singed his hair to which the man babbles something about hating to sit with candles behind his head.
The big three religions get plenty of lengthy debates while Eastern faiths are largely ignored; however Mormon tenets are explored and Scientology is examined with surprisingly hilarious results thanks to accompanying footage of such members as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
There is a wild-eyed Jew who believes Israel does not deserve to remain in Jerusalem and is seen in newsreel footage embracing Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and denies the ruler ever called for Israel to be destroyed.
In Florida, again, we meet a Latino, named Jesus, who claims angels visited him and proclaimed him as Christ reincarnated. John Westcott of Exchange Ministries, a converted gay man, who tries to convert other gays nearly halts the interview; “I’m not sure I like where this is headed.” The segment ends with a mutual hug where Westcott appears to perhaps still have some leftover tendencies. “That wasn’t bad,” he tells Maher after the embrace.
There are plenty of amusing moments, as after Maher and his team are thrown out of the Vatican, and he stands outside extolling this isn’t a special effect but the real Vatican and while interviewing a black tele-evangelist gets the man to admit he probably has groupies.
On as more serious note, the devout evangelical Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) is unable to answer Maher’s question “Why is faith good?” Most profound moment comes when Maher interviews his sister and mother (who a final credit scroll indicates died in 2007) in the New Jersey church they attended explain his parents left the church due to their use of birth control, which was considered a sin.
Much like Maher’s HBO program, Real Time, the film ends with a sobering and seriously monologue over explosive imagery. Kudos to the research team of Robyn Adams, Chelsea Barnard and Sophie Charles, whose extensive data supports Maher and Editors Jeffrey Werner, Jeff Groth and Christian Kinnard who assembled an awesome array of footage seamlessly into the film.
Anthony Hardwick’s use of a two-camera approach improves on the films cinematography.
A Lionsgate release of a Lionsgate Films/Thousand Words presentation of a Thousand Words/Bill Maher production. Produced by Bill Maher, Palmer West and Jonah Smith; executive producer Charlie Siskel; directed by Larry Charles. Camera (Deluxe color), Anthony Hardwick; editors, Jeffrey Werner, Jeff Groth, Christian Kinnard; sound (Dolby Digital), Scott Harber; supervising sound editor, Geoffrey Rubay; re-recording mixer, Rubay; researchers, Robyn Adams, Chelsea Barnard, Sophie Charles; associate producers, Alexandra Lambrinidis, Lisa Rudin; assistant director, Dale Stern.
With: Bill Maher, Julie Maher, Kathie Maher, Andrew Newberg, John Westcott, Sen. Mark Pryor, Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, Steve Berg, Ken Ham, Francis Collins, Jeremiah Cummings, Mohammad Hourani, Father Reginald Foster, Mohammed Junas Gatfar, Rabbi Dovid Weiss, Rabbi Schmuel Strauss, Dean Hamer, Rev. Terre van Beverren, Propa-Gandhi, Ray Suarez, Geert Wilders, Fatima Elatik, Father George Coyne, Tal Bachman, Bill Gardiner, Larry Charles.
Reviewed at The Carmike Summit, Birmingham, AL November 3, 2008. MPAA Rating: R: For Adult themes, Profanity, Brief Violence and Brief Drug Use. 1:41. English, Spanish and Arabic dialogue.