Directed by Larry Charles
Starring Bill Maher
Clearly I don’t know what a documentary is anymore, because this is marketed as a documentary and I don’t think it is one. I don’t think most of Michael Moore’s work is documentary either. I think it’s “video-essay” or something. So, I’m putting this Larry Charles movie, starring Bill Maher, in the category of “video-essay.”
I thought Maher’s movie was funny, and pretty brave. I didn’t think it was particularly fair, but then he never said he was going to be fair. I was touched by the simple conversational scenes with his mother and sister in a church, the more so when, at the end, I found out the movie was dedicated to his mother and she had died in 2007.
Parts of the movie are chilling, and not the ones I expected. Yes, I expected to find the scenes of religious terrorism chilling. I did not expect to see shots of a theme park in the south where they re-enact the crucifixion every day. Not just the crucifixion, but the whole via dolorosa, the stations of the cross. Every day. For a fee. Like Disneyland, only with scourging, beating, and nailing someone to a cross. To be, well, fair, it’s possible that they act out the resurrection as well, and the director just didn’t show us that.
Like Larry Charles’s film before this one, Borat, Religulous mostly shows Bill Maher asking people difficult questions about their religious beliefs. Of course the film is carefully edited so that Maher gets the last word, often in his car after the scene has finished shooting.
Funniest moments? The cannabis church in Amsterdam, and Maher getting run off the lawn in front of the Latter Day Saints’ temple in Salt Lake City. Scariest moments? Several, actually, and one of them, while not overtly threatening, involves the guy who runs the Genesis Museum asking Maher, in a stern, patriarchal tone, “Are you God?”
Maher looks down and says softly, “No.”
So, as an op-ed piece about the dangers of blind belief and checking your intelligence and free will at the door, it’s good. When it’s about the patent absurdity of expecting religious texts written by mortal people to anticipate scientific findings that would happen millennia later, it’s good too. When Bill was carrying on about the dangers of faith, though, I started thinking about the Buddhist monks in Myanmar, who risk their lives every day to speak out against the military dictatorship there. They do that because their belief system tells them to, and they have faith that it’s the right thing. They aren’t about separating the unwary from their money, or strapping explosives to another person’s body and pointing that person at a crowded hotel. They risk their own lives for their faith. I liked the movie, and I wish Bill Maher had considered talking just a little bit about them.