Political comedian Bill Maher shamelessly plugged his self-centered documentary Religulous more than once at this year’s Oscar ceremonies where he grumbled to a worldwide audience that this film didn’t get nominated this year. He shouldn’t complain too much.
Maher gets a rare chance to share his personal views on modern day religion to a wide audience and, for the most part, makes the best of it. He delivers his written lines well and conveys his ideas clearly while respectfully allowing his interview subjects to voice their opinions and beliefs amid his own very personal beliefs and views.
This highly political documentary snapshots a wide view of religion complemented by Maher discussing his religious experiences, several times while riding in a car presumably while traveling to the next of his worldwide locations, which include Europe, Israel, and the Vatican City.
Maher also visits the Holy Land Experience in Florida, a creation museum, and a mobile trailer church where one guy who strongly disagrees with Maher walks out of one of the beginning debate sessions. “Thank you for being Christ-like and not just Christian,” he says to the remaining worshippers.
Whether or not you agree with him, Maher covers who and how people worship. The bombastic accompanying visuals create some quick emotions including intermittent humor (e.g. Scarface clips) and satirical shock (e.g. a suicide bomb exploding after a reference to religious fanatics).
Maher shows several sensationalized religious experiences like evangelists speaking in tongues on television, but doesn’t establish the other, objective side of the coin, like authenticity issues of speaking in tongues, especially when no one is there to interpret what they’re saying.
Maher constantly tries to provoke his interview subjects while achieving the standard “I got kicked out of there” bits and dumbfounded reactions to his questions. Maher’s reputation alone says a lot, as interview subjects only knew the topic would be about religion and not that he would be doing the questioning – not a greatly objective format.
The film is directed by Larry Charles (Borat), who knows how to set up the comedy (assisted by subtitled jokes often jabbing interview subjects), but better editing, smoother transitions, and more polished points would’ve elevated this documentary.
Maher tackles the historical evidence and the “no science in scriptures” issue in a general way while even taking to the streets in a mild disguise posing as a Scientologist, one of the film’s funniest and more memorable moments, especially because (given the limited footage) it doesn’t seem that anyone recognizes him.
While I don’t believe Maher’s view that religion is detrimental to society, he just plays the devil’s advocate. “Doubt is my product”, says Maher as he answers questions of people’s faith and evangelism as selling “invisible products” to the public. People even liken going to heaven to winning the lottery, saying “you can’t go if you don’t play.”
By the end, Maher even calls upon non-religious people to make themselves known and even claims himself to be one, yet he refers to himself as half Jewish and half Catholic. “Rational people, anti-religious, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves,” he says. “The plain fact is that religion must die for mankind to live.”
The film has strong words in a strong visual platform, though the extras are skimpy, so you assume filmmakers used the best bits of footage for the film. Recommended with reservations and rated R for language, drug use, and strong visuals and sexual nudity in footage montages. Check after the ending credits for a personal clip where Maher appears again with his sister and mother, to whom the film is dedicated.