Directed by Larry Charles. (2008, R, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 3, 2008
Hallelujah. Bill Maher walks with the angels in his documentary Religulous (rhymes with ridiculous). Though fashioned as popular entertainment with laughs, light moments, and mostly humorous segments, Religulous is as serious as a disapproving Jehovah about its mission to upend our rote allegiance to blind religious faith. Maher hosts this globe-hopping whirlwind of interviews with various representatives of the Western religious faiths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism (Eastern and African religions are paid no mind here, which is one of the film's stumbling points). He goes to the Vatican and the Holy Land, the Mormon Tabernacle and a truckers' church in the Bible Belt, a congressional office and the church he attended as a child. As always, Maher carries with him his sharp wit as he engages his interviewees on the subject of faith without proof. He is in every scene as the interviewer, but rather than using Michael Moore gotcha tactics, he participates in what seem to be real conversations with his subjects. He poses provocative questions to which the respondents' answers often form the unintended punch lines. More restrained here than he is on his TV show Real Time With Bill Maher, Maher frequently responds to an interviewee with controlled silence. The best example of this is his conversation with Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas during which the creationist senator defends his beliefs against Maher's ridicule of this legislator who believes in Bible "fairy tales," and Pryor concludes by saying, "you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate." Instead of responding to the gift of a fabulous straight line, Maher remains silent while the camera lingers on Pryor's face. The scene is also a testament to the contributions of director Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm), who needs no more than this film's simple two-camera setup to demonstrate an unfailing sense of what needs to be in the frame at any time. Maher and Charles can be faulted for playing it somewhat safe in Religulous, never going toe-to-toe with sophisticated thinkers or experienced theologians and instead depending for their interviews on those who might be considered easy marks. Neither do they delve too deeply into the more indecipherable sense of spirituality that seems to infuse the majority of people even if they don't consider themselves members of an organized religion or faith. A closing monologue by Maher about the dangers of mixing religion and politics also uncomfortably shifts the film's tone from barbed humor to zealous rant. Until that point, however, Maher dances on the head of a pin, pirouetting onscreen as he preaches the gospel of doubt. If, as Maher states, 16% of the U.S. population identifies as secular humanists who don't believe in God, then that's a large cross section of the country whose voices are muffled by the status quo. It is to them, more than the believers, Maher speaks. To the keepers of the faith, Maher and Charles in essence proclaim, "Let my people go."