I laughed until my sides hurt.
I cried. From laughing.
Film critic Roger Ebert occasionally has to explain why he gives slapstick comedies or slasher horror movies a higher number of stars than some symbolism-laden art film. Ebert says the question to ask is "Does the film accomplish what it set out to accomplish?"
Using Ebert's method, one of the "Jackass" movies can possibly get a higher rating than something filmed in Amsterdam featuring Meryl Streep speaking with an accent.
This movie accomplishes its goals.
It is a hilarious bone-rattling attack on religious fundamentalism. When the movie ends, you know that religious fundamentalism has been successfully attacked.
But enough about Roger Ebert.
Let's apply The Whited Sepulchre Standard Of Film Criticism to this movie.
The WSSOFC works as follows....ask yourself how badly you wanted the movie to end. Movies that are excruciating torture to sit through are a zero. If you didn't want it to end, ask yourself how badly you wanted the movie to continue. (The only "0" on this scale that I've ever sat all the way through is "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh". At the other extreme, the only "10" is "Pulp Fiction". You can only have one "0" and one "10" per lifetime.)
This documentary is a 9.5
I walked out of the theatre almost 19 hours ago, but I wish I was still in there, watching more "Religulous".
Religulous was directed by Larry Charles, the guy who directed "Borat". Charles is in the background of a few scenes, looking somewhat like Cousin It from the Addams Family. He also interviews Maher as the two go from Israel to the Deep South to Salt Lake City to The Vatican (to name a few).
The documentary has the same road movie feel as Borat, and according to the L.A. Times, the interviews were obtained in the same way:
So how did Maher manage to get all these people to actually talk to him? Since "Religulous" was directed by Larry Charles, who also did "Borat," I suspected that subterfuge and trickery were involved. I was not far wrong. Here's how Maher pulled it off:
On how he got people to talk to him: "It was simple: We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.' It didn't work everywhere. We went to Salk Lake City, but no one would let us film there at all."
On the element of surprise: "Larry Charles' theory is--just keep going till they throw you out. I guess he learned that on 'Borat.' The crew would set up and at the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they'd be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they'd have to talk to me. It was like--'And now here's ... Bill!'
While many of the interviews were with Fundamentalists trying to explain themselves to Maher, others were more sympathetic to his cause. Like Father Reginald Foster, a Catholic priest and friar of the order of Discalced Carmelites. (Definition of Calced vs Discalced Carmelites: one group originally wore shoes, one didn't.) Foster is the Pope's principle Latinist, and the interview with Maher took place in The Vatican. Unlike many of Maher's interview subjects, Foster dismisses much of Catholic tradition, ritual, and authority as...."bunk".
Another surprising conversation was with George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. Coyne compares the Bronze Age mythological view of the world with the scientific view and declares that there is nothing that religion has to say about science, and vice-versa. (This new insight could have spared Galileo a LOT of trouble.)
I don't know if Vatican employees have a union, or any other type of job security, but I doubt that any of the Church's higher-ups are pleased with Foster and Coyne. My prediction? Heads will roll.
Maher visits a truck stop chapel. He interviews his mother and sister about their family's blend of Jewish and Catholic backgrounds. He interviews a couple of Mormon apostates.
One of the funnier moments is when Maher interviews Mark Pryor, Democratic Senator from Arkansas and a staunch believer in Creationism. This moment was good enough for inclusion in the movie's trailer:
If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, Maher asks how people smart enough to run the most powerful nation on earth can still believe the Creationist story of the talking snake. Pryor answers that "You don't have to pass an I.Q. test to be in the Senate".
The audience howled at that one.
Then there's the segment filmed at the Orlando Florida "Holy Land Experience Theme Park". (Hit the link, and get back to me....it's worth it. Imagine Jesus dedicating his life to simplicity and then having that abomination constructed in his honor.)
There's an interview with two pitiful gay Muslims. Yes, Maher was able to find a Muslim gay bar.
I could go on and on. The only real weakness of the documentary was the ending. Maher's premise is that most of our religious beliefs endanger humanity. Many fundamentalists Christians have a longing for the apocalypse, a belief paralleled by the Muslim desire for jihad and martyrdom. The last few minutes of the documentary feature a pastiche of explosions, martyrdoms, 9-11 footage, and Muslim protesters. Maher does a voiceover explaining his concerns for the planet. We're all in trouble if enough nukes fall into the hands of people who believe that earth is nothing but a culling ground where our gods separate the worthy from the unworthy.
The carnage on the screen and the brilliance of Maher's closing rant are like two incredible events cancelling each other out. You can pay attention to either one, but not both.
When the film ended, the crowd at the Grapevine Mills (Texas) movie theatre spontaneously started applauding. When the applause died, someone standing near the exit yelled "I hope you people don't think HIS vision of God is anything like the REAL God", and then ran for the parking lot. Unlike most of Maher's interview subjects, the guy didn't have the courage of his convictions.
Speaking as an unorthodox Christian who believes that the teachings of Jesus were hijacked within the first couple of hundred years after his death, I couldn't help but view this movie as a good thing for....the church.
Yes, the church. The christian church. People aren't going to gather on Sunday mornings to hear someone explain the talking snake story for much longer. People are starting to question whether or not God is allowing infants to be born all over the world so that they can grow up to be fuel for an eternal BarBQ.
The Vatican knows better than this. Professors at the legit seminaries know better, as do many preachers and other ministers. Get them off the clock, and they'll tell you so.
It's time for our churches to stop asking people to believe, in Mark Twain's words, "seven impossible things before breakfast". People are going hungry while we produce liturgical show-stoppers to flatter the creator of cancer. If there is a creator, I don't believe that he, she, or it is interested in watching us martyr ourselves. I don't think whatever made us cares if we eat shellfish, or wear clothes from blended fabrics. I can no longer imagine a creator who responds to flattery.... "We praise you O God, for all your great and mighty works, and by the way....I LOVE that jacket !"
But I can believe that 2000 years ago, there was an enlightened rabbi who totally despised the intertwined government/religious system of his day, and who did his best to point out its shortcomings. He taught that we should simply love each other, help the poor, and not worry about keeping score with the Joneses.
Wouldn't it make a lot of sense for the church to get back to that? We've got the space. We've got kitchens. We have lots of dedicated volunteers. Buried in the gospels is Jesus's rationale for doing so.
In the closing words of Bill Maher, "Grow up or die."