Lionsgate/Thousand Words

Lionsgate/Thousand Words

It is depressing that in our current climate, any serious discussion of religion is considered either only for crazy people, or utterly beyond critical analysis. The murder of Theo van Gogh, and the recent firebombing of the home of the potential British publisher of The Jewel of Medina, demonstrate that debate and discussion of religion is more essential than ever. Comedian Bill Maher and director Larry Charles have decided that, since this critical analysis doesn’t seem possible, ridicule is the best countermeasure. Based on the arguments I heard spilling out of the theatre after the show, they just might be right.

It’s hard to see how Maher and Charles could go wrong by mocking religion. As they point out, if you walked into work tomorrow and announced the baby you’d just had was in spite of your virginity, but the baby was also the same person as his dad, you’d be sectioned for your own safety in no time. And yet this is considered one of the sacred stories of Christianity. So why do people get so upset when their religious beliefs are challenged? Why is faith usually incompatible with critical thinking? And why is making fun of Mormons such guaranteed comedy gold?

Charles, who previously gave us Sacha Baron Cohen in that mankini in Borat, and Maher have a ball during their interviews. Watch the pastor in a $2000 suit squirm as he tries to explain there’s no sin in being rich! Savor the sight of the man who has declared himself Jesus Christ announced he’s be just as committed if he was Satan! Relish the head of the Cannabis Ministry’s hair catching on fire during their interview! But it’s not just the people that can be jaw-dropping. Did you know about The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, where tourists watch a singing/dancing reenactment of the crucifixion? Or The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where animatronic children and dinosaurs romp together in ‘historical’ dioramas? As the head of the Creation Museum says, either all of it is literally true, or none of it is. Maher wades right in, flinging insults, mocking sacred cows and demanding proof in the face of uncomprehending faith. His willingness to argue, his obvious contempt for their beliefs, and his upfront directness in doing this makes this film hugely enjoyable.

The point Maher and Charles build to underneath all the silliness is a serious one, delivered with a fierce punch. It reduces an audience which had been happily laughing along — I saw the film in England, and Brits love little more than laughing at nutty Americans — to stunned silence. It’s clever, and effective, and reveals Religulous as the most effective piece of propaganda made for some time. It’s accurate terminology, as the film quite openly doesn’t play fair; interviews are intercut with commentary by Maher, filmed in various cars, as he discussed what he thought of the interviews after the fact. There are mocking subtitles, intercut archive footage, and all sorts of cutting asides meant to take their interviewers down a peg or ten. Years of comedy experience have made Maher incredibly quick off the mark, and only a little mean-spirited — if you don’t laugh at his final joke in the Truckers’ Chapel, you have no sense of humor — so these little additional commentaries are mean-spirited and sometimes cruel. That said, it’s hugely amusing to see an argument so cheerfully loaded, so barefacedly one-sided, and so frankly determined to bully the other side into silence. Religulous says that organised religion has done this to everyone for thousands of years, and they want to fight back. Whether you agree with them or not, you have to admit that they’ve created an impressive, and very funny, film.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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