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Religulous (2008)

Run, All Ye Faithful!

This movie is not what I expected. I'm a huge fan of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, but Maher himself tends to rub me the wrong way. His sharp wit and ability to absorb and share knowledge with his audience is often upstaged by a condescension that makes me wonder if he actually cares about convincing people of his points, or if he's content with being a millionaire contrarian. Especially when he goes off on anti-religion diatribes, my eyes glaze over, and I find myself wondering what trauma had compelled him to launch a (pardon the term) crusade against the devout...

So you can see why I was not looking forward to "Religulous". Two hours of Maher bashing rubes and mugging for the camera? No thanks. After all, I'd just finished watching "An American Carol", and was plenty full of polemic cinema. Fortunately, Maher's film (which cannot be classified as a documentary; more on that in a minute) is consistently funny, sometimes insightful, and often surprising. The premise: our intrepid comedian travels the world in search of the reason as to why billions of people subscribe to sets of beliefs that can reasonably be ascribed to those with a neurological disorder. He interviews pastors, rabbis, scientists, a member of Congress, and even an ex-Jew-for-Jesus...

Bill Maher and directory Larry Charles ("Borat") have obviously learned a great deal from Michael Moore, whose documentaries "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Bowling for Columbine" smudged the line between the straight display of events-as-they-happened and entertainment. In "Fahrenheit", for example, Moore re-tooled the opening of "Bonanza" with members of the Bush cabinet standing in for the show's heroes; this was an effort to exaggerate the administration's macho posturing in regards to capturing Osama Bin Laden ("We're gonna smoke 'im out!). In Religulous, the filmmakers punctuate the film with similar effects: cut-aways to "Scarface" and "The Ten Commandments"; but they also cross a line by adding unnecessary fluff that adds nothing to the proceedings and pulls the viewer straight out of the picture. For example, during one interview, the shot holds on the interviewee, while a woman scurries across the screen in the background. Appropos of nothing, a shrieking sound effect is added in, implying that the woman was fleeing from something. I didn't get it; There was no visible danger in the scene, and the person being interviewed wasn't saying anything particularly frightening. It's as if Larry Charles wanted to make sure everyone was still alert...

Aside from a few of those moments, "Religulous" presents a gripping look at religious fanaticism. And Bill Maher manages to garner, if not sympathy, understanding as to his frustrations with seemingly intelligent people who believe, literally, in "the talking snake in the tree". We get insights into his spiritual upbringing (half Catholic, half Jewish), and come to see him as someone who would like to believe in something greater but who cannot, based on the corrupt world around him; a world whose problems stem--in large part--from religious conflicts. His closing thesis is a bit much to handle--on first viewing, anyway--as he walks along the rocks of Megiddo, the Biblical site of Armageddon. It is here that the humor of the film is swapped out for a fire-and-brimstone montage of nuclear bombs exploding and a religion-will-kill-everyone-if-left-unchecked sermon that is a perfect representation of the Hollywood Atheist against which "values voters" constantly rail (Maher even looks like a devil, dressed to the nines in a black suit and blood-red dress shirt)...

For all its bombast, "Religulous" refreshingly stops short of condemnation of all religious people, and never pretends to have all the answers. It is a great jumping-off point for healthy discussion, and a balanced enough look at the myriad laughable costumes and traditions in every religion to warrant chuckles from even the staunchest dogma adherents.

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