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Religulous (Lionsgate, R)

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religulous.jpgWith Religulous, Maher attempts to give a voice to the 16 percent of Americans who don’t belong to an organized religion and, frankly, wouldn’t want to be.






When discussing with a friend the appeal of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, we came to a pretty solid conclusion: Herzog’s docs work so well because he never holds himself or his views back in order to achieve the unattainable objectivity that so many documentarians strive for. None of his documentaries that I’ve seen are nearly as searing as Religulous, though his fiction depictions of a monkey being crucified in Even Dwarfs Started Small and the decidedly un-Christ-like priest in Aguirre, the Wrath of God wonderfully displayed his own disdain for the church. In Religulous, Bill Maher goes on his own adventure across the world to find out what really goes on in the minds of the devout; the film was directed by Borat director Larry Charles, who also directed a number of episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

With Religulous, Maher attempts to give a voice to the 16 percent of Americans who don’t belong to an organized religion and, frankly, wouldn’t want to be. Through his travels, he scours the globe (or at least the United States, the Netherlands and Israel) to talk to a range of people from a Mexican televangelist who swears he’s the second coming of (or, more accurately, the direct descendent of) Jesus, to truck-stop chapel-goers, to a pair of Jews that have invented devices to keep Jews from disrespecting the Sabbath. The biggest criticism most people will make of Religulous is Maher’s choices of interviewees, most of them ill-informed about their own religion or preposterous in their blind faith or, in the case of all the Muslims, in extreme denial. However, what people who’ve already formed a negative opinion of the film will fail to see is that Maher and Charles actually achieve something profound and humane in some of their subjects, particularly with the “ex-gay” and the Christian truckers.

It remains to be seen whether Religulous will suffer from a touch of “preaching to the choir” or become a Michael Moore-like sensation, offending and enraging across the country. His penchant to start fires in his interviews makes for great fucking cinema, nonetheless, and those willing to dig a bit deeper should find that amid Maher’s anti-religious establishment rants are fierce pro-humanist approaches to living. The film comes to a surprising and strangely effective climax, particularly when its structure didn’t seem to lend to such an explosive finale. Looking like a Michael Bay trailer for the Armageddon (not the movie), Maher spells his message out in bold lettering and neon lights. It’s a truly bold move, and if the film reaches a wide enough audience, expect Religulous to be the most debated film of the year. | Joe Bowman

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