Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Look At All Those Silly Believers (A Film Review of Bill Maher's Documentary Religulous)

I love satire on religion.

I've always loved satirical films about faith - not because I'm an atheist, but because I actually believe in God. God is very real to me but that doesn't mean I can't laugh at somebody who pulls down the pants on fundamentalists. On the contrary, they deserve it more than any one I know.

You see, I'm deeply suspicious of organized religion - and sometimes I suspect God is as well. Any belief system that claims it has all the answers is downright dangerous. As long as Christians claim you only can be saved by Jesus Christ, we'll never experience love for mankind, only saintly arrogance. And as long as Muslims believe that Hindus, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists are infidels, there won't be much peace on earth. We have to accept all religions as rivers flowing into the same sea. But even though a lot of people would agree on this, very few behave as if they do. The religious followers always "know" that their God is superior to all others.

However, Bill Maher doesn't have that problem. He thinks that every single religion is crazy and that makes for a good stand up routine, but not for a good movie. However, Religulous is a documentary and starts off by being very funny. Bill Maher interviews a bunch of Christians in "Jesusland". He is witty and irreverent without being too disrespectful. He asks good questions and provokes the church goers, but slowly, ever so slowly the interviews become tedious and repetitious.

It's easy to understand why. Religulous is basically one and a half hour of amusing cheap shots against Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Scientologists who aren't allowed to finish a sentence but are cut off and scorned by a host who seems friendly at first but slowly comes across as a scumbag. None of the victims of the film's editing have a chance of coming off as coherent or sane. Why? Because Bill Maher doesn't want them to. They act as straight men to his punch lines; they're half wits who should know better than believe in fairy tales. And if you don't get the "truth" of this, the director Larry Charles puts funny subtitles on the screen to underscore how stupid and gullible the believers are.

So is all this amusing? Often, yes. Should we take it seriously as "proof" of religious insanity? Not at all, because Bill Maher always gets the last word. The wisdom of others ends up on the cutting room floor and that makes for a predictable movie.

I read somewhere that a lot of people find Bill Maher courageous for taking up the subject. Why? If the man were courageous he would have gone to Yemen to shoot the Muslim section of his film. Now he just flew to Amsterdam to smoke some weed and make fun of people whose English isn't good enough to understand his sarcasm.

But as far as I'm concerned, excellent satire requires a warm heart. It requires cynical curiosity, a certain degree of rage, but not self righteous anger. Even though Bill Maher suffers from the latter, he seems like a nice guy. I'd drink a glass of Kool Aid with him any time, but to my mind Religulous was a major disappointment. Not only for the Bill Maher fan in me (I love him on HBO), but also because I admire Larry Charles who directed Borat and many episodes of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both were unpredictable masterpieces.

Religulous is definitely not but could have been interesting if Bill Maher had been a tiny bit open minded. If his attitude had been, "this is weird, but let me see if I can make some sense of it", the film would have been more provocative. Now he just wants to poke a finger into the eyes of the non-scientific "morons" who have experienced God one way or another.

So would somebody please make a funny, warm, irreverent movie about God and religion - preferably somebody who doesn't have all the answers? Religulous is a long dogmatic cheap shot from a brilliant comedian. Yawn!

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