This is the Apocalypse of St. Bill the Stoned.
Though funny, smart and often profane, Religulous doesn’t want to send you out of the theater with a smile on your lips. The final moments of the film aren’t laugh out loud funny, but a parade of images of death and destruction. This, Bill Maher says, is what humanity is in for if it doesn’t get rid of the nuerological disorder that is religion.
You probably know my bias going into this film. I believe that religion is not just irrational but anti-rational, a Bronze Age worldview that should have been left behind when we started figuring out science. Bill Maher sees it the same way, and he makes no bones about it. But this isn’t a review of Maher’s ideas (10/10 on that one) but of the movie itself. How does Religulous stack up as a film?
It stacks up really well. The basic concept of the film has Maher traveling around the world talking to believers about what they believe, and most importantly why (or how they can believe it, for that matter). From the Holy Land to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida, Maher goes where the believers are and engages them on their home turf. That makes a huge difference in how the film feels, as does the fact that he actually confronts them. Religulous is directed by comic genius and Borat helmer Larry Charles, and it would have been easy to do this movie in a similar vein to that one – letting these people dig themselves a ridiculous hole with their own words – but Maher isn’t interested in that. He wants to interact with these people, to confront them with the logic-hating aspects of their faiths and see what they come back with.
That’s where I think the movie succeeds the most, but also one of the main places where detractors will come after it. They’ll say that Maher is looking just to clown these people, but that isn’t the case. He’s more than slightly exasperated with the cop out answers that people give him (to the point where he actually gets kind of excited when a Jesus impersonater explains the parodoxical Holy Trinity by comparing it to the three states of water. It’s bullshit, Maher says, but it’s interesting and new bullshit to him), and this film is supposed to be funny so he’s being funny, but he’s also being fair. He’s asking these people straight, direct questions. In return he’s getting garbage like ‘What if you die and find out you’re wrong?’
And he’s not going after random people in churches. He’s going to self-styled leaders and full-time religious people as much as possible (although some of the film’s best moments do come from tourists in the gift shop at The Holy Land Experience as they debate the place of Jews in the Kingdom of Heaven), the kind of people who are supposed to have the answers to give. The kind of people who are supposed to have given some thought to their faith. And yet again and again these are the people with the flimsiest crap, who present proof of the Almighty with miracles like God making it rain on cue during a party. Maher handily makes short work of most of these people, with a few interesting exceptions. The Catholics he speaks with come off fairly well as modern people who understand that the Bible is filled with allegories for how we should live our lives, not straight history and science lessons. Then there’s the anti-Zionist rabbi who yaps so much that Maher actually walks out on the interview. It’s the only time in the film that he’s bested, albeit through sheer brute force.
The exchanges between Maher and the believers are obviously edited – the film would be days long if they weren’t – but they feel fair. Interestingly, Charles has decided to include many, many shots of the documentary camera crew and quite a few moments that happen outside of the ‘on air’ parts of the interview process. The director himself is an almost constant presence in the film, with his dark clothes and long, grey streaked beard making him look sort of like a holy man himself. There’s a transparency to the film that’s intriguing; by including the crew and many off the cuff scenes of Maher in the car talking out his thoughts on religion the film keeps from becoming about Maher and becomes about the journey. About the search. I mean, sure, Maher’s the star of the picture, but there’s little pretense on display here. It doesn’t feel like a Michael Moore ‘hey look at me’ op-ed documentary.
What’s interesting is that Maher’s not really spending time on the evils surrounding religion. He talks a bit about violence (especially when he’s examining Islam) and makes passing mention of the Catholic sex abuse scandals and interviews a preacher dressed in a ridiculously expensive suit, but what Maher’s really after is the basic beliefs. The evil things surrounding the religious institutions are too easily brushed off – these are people doing these terrible things, and people are fallible – so he strikes at the heart of the matter. How can you believe in a talking snake? A man living in the belly of a whale? How is a guy coming back from the dead after three days any less silly than Xenu putting millions of aliens in volcanoes ages ago and detonating nukes on them?
These beliefs are kind of hilarious – it’s hard not to laugh when you realize that Mormons think God is a flesh and blood dude who lives on an alien planet – but it’s Maher, as the irascible doubter, who brings a lot of comedy to the film. It’s often laugh out loud funny, aided by funny asides from Larry Charles – inserts of stock and religious movie footage with perfect comedic timing, and a running gag of subtitles that question the factual inaccuracies and stupidities of the believers – and for most of the movie’s running time, Religulous is fairly light-hearted while dealing with some pretty big issues. But as the movie moves overseas, as Maher hits Jerusalem and examines the radical Muslim problem in Amsterdam, the film slowly begins to darken. If there’s a misstep in Religulous it’s this transition, which is a little jarring. Maher’s approach to believers – put them on the spot and cut down their arguments with logic and humor – often makes it easy to think of religion as silly, but that’s not his final thesis. Charles saves some important bits from earlier interviews for his final summation; Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, a fundamentalist who ran campaign ads where he clutched the Bible, is presented as a goofy guy in the beginning of the film but the movie comes back to the scary aspects of these fundamentalists being in power. They WANT to bring about the end of the world so that Jesus can come back, and since they think we’re in the End Times right now they don’t have much incentive to save the environment or prop up the economy or health care or anything else in a way that will help future generations. This is the scary stuff at the end of the movie – it doesn’t matter if you believe in the Book of Revelations if your president does – but it’s only at the end of the movie. Audiences may feel the rug being pulled out from under them as the final ten minutes descend into a scary slideshow of horrors.
As a piece of agitprop op-ed filmmaking, Religulous is often brilliant. It’s definitely hilarious, sometimes to the point of leaving me wheezing and giggling. It’s also essentially irrefutable – the argument between Maher and the believers really boils down to ‘Why do you like chocolate?’ The problem is that nobody makes huge political and military decisions based on how they feel about chocolate. The film’s final moments, where Maher make a passionate exhortation to like-minded doubters to stand up against the irrationality that has gripped our world (an irrationality most lately on display in the megachurch ‘debate’ between Obama and McCain where they tried to outlove Jesus each other. Didn’t anybody learn the lesson about electing guys who place all their faith in God instead of facts over the last eight years?) could be galvanizing to that silent 16% of Americans – a minority, by the way, bigger than blacks or Jews.
I do wonder what believers will say about the film. There’s little doubt that few of them will bother seeing it – nothing seems to bug a believer so much as someone attacking their beliefs – but I wonder if any minds will be changed, if any people will be unsaved, such as it were. During Maher’s stop over in Salt Lake City he talks to some ex-Mormons, and one of them says that his life was changed as soon as he saw how silly so many of the things Joseph Smith claimed were. Will Religulous present the essential silliness of religion to some on the fence religious folks?