Directed by: Larry Charles
Premise: An op-ed documentary on the current state of religion in world affairs. Comedian and social commentator Bill Maher travels across the globe, meeting with representatives of mostly Abrahamic-based faiths and critiques their beliefs.
What Works: Religulous is an op-ed or subjective documentary, and should be regarded like an editorial piece in a newspaper, not an objective piece of journalism (if such a thing even exists). But as a subjective piece, Religulous does its job assembling its arguments and making its point. Director Larry Charles, best known for directing Borat, uses his guerilla-style filmmaking to capture Maher speaking at religious locations such as the Vatican. The film primarily addresses Christianity in American culture and despite dealing with heavy subject matter, Religulous manages to be very funny in dealing with the absurdity of these beliefs and traditions. Generally, Maher is able to bring that out without showing too much contempt. Like Errol Morris, he often gives his subjects just enough rope for them to hang themselves with. One of the film’s best moments both for exploring the topic and for laughs, is a trip to Holy Land, a theme park in Orlando, Florida that features recreations of Biblical sites and reenacts the crucifixion of Christ as a daily show. Maher’s interview with an actor playing Jesus raises many of the most interesting questions in the film, which strike at the essence of the conflict between faith and rationality. In the second half, Religulous also deals with Islam and Judaism and while it is a little more sensitive in dealing with these religions, the film does allow for criticism that unifies the religions together. This is done quite effectively in Maher’s tour of religious sites in the Holy Land in which Muslim, Jewish, and Christian sites exit on top of each other and leads into the frightening climax in which Maher effectively connects the doomsday prophesies of these religions with the way their participants have conducted themselves over the centuries. This is very smart filmmaking and a great example of cinema as rhetoric.
What Doesn’t: The biggest flaw of Religulous is its tendency to interview extreme practitioners of faith or those who have become disillusioned with it. As a result, Religulous is at least partly guilty of setting up paper tigers. And although the film is dealing with a very important issue, the film is less likely to reach the faithful and more likely to preach to the choir of nonbelievers.
Bottom Line: Religulous is not a deeply penetrating documentary, but it is an important one. The film might not convert the believers but it will probably call nonbelivers to action, which Maher states as the intention of his film. On that level, and as an entertaining bit of social criticism, Religulous works very well.
Episode: #212 (November 2, 2008)