Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Funny... In a Sad Way

Bill Maher's new movie Religulous is something I ought to have been eager to see. The title, a blending of "religious" and "ridiculous," certainly strikes an encouraging note, and the previews show the expected tidbits of mystical lunacy interspersed with Maher's trademark irreverent commentary. And the movie is, in practice, just what it purports to be in promotion.

The thing is, I doubt many devout believers will go and see any movie which says, right up front, that religious faith is rightly an object of ridicule. And personally I need no more evidence that we're hurting and killing ourselves with our blindly-held fairy tales. He's not only preaching to the choir in my case, he's selling a pretty grim prognosis to one who already has trouble finding much foothold for hope.

Directed by Larry Charles, who previously directed Borat, and is known primarily as a writer on some of television's smartest comedy series--Seinfeld, Mad About You, Curb Your Enthusiasm--Religulous takes the form of an informal documentary, with Maher and crew visiting religious sites in America and abroad and talking with a wide spread of (mostly religious) people. Maher is first and foremost an entertainer, and much of the movie is quite funny, though not, I'd guess, when it's your particular sect that's being lampooned. But that's clearly his goal, to equate in our collective mind the lunacies we all see and acknowledge in the other wacky faiths of the world to the comfortable, mindlessly-accepted lunacies in our own. It's a lesson that seems as self-evident to me as the sun always coming up on the same side of my house, yet his interview subjects remind us that anti-rationality is rampant all around us. He might rather have taken the tack of being more systematic in debunking one particular faith, but I think that path would have potentially reached far fewer people.

I've heard the film criticized for its shallow approach to faith, and yet the nagging and universal problem of not being able to generate sensible answers to even the simplest questions is something that just can't be gotten around. The illusion of wonder at the mythological constructs falls immediately when we realize there can be no edifice when there is no foundation for it to stand upon. Charles and Maher have a bottomless well of quotes and film clips to support their case, from a score of pre-Christian religions in the Middle East which shared all of the Jesus story's characteristics--virgin birth, 12 disciples, death and resurrection, trinity-of-being, etc., etc.--to nearly half of the early contenders for this year's Republican presidential nomination raising their hands when asked "does anyone here NOT believe in evolution?" It's hard to argue with him when he is so obviously and demonstrably right about every faith but the one we hold.

The link between religious faith and violent death is unsettling and unavoidable. As he puts it (I'm paraphrasing): It's crazy how something supposedly based on peace and acceptance and love so often turns to anger and exclusion and violence. The existence of weapons which have the capacity to eradicate our entire species, placed in the control of people who are not rigorously rational is a deeply terrifying prospect. Yet that's what some of the world's fanatical religious societies aspire to--and indeed it's exactly what we have now: the world's greatest superpower is currently being steered by a man who calls himself "born again" and would welcome the planet's destruction as the fulfillment of a dusty, thousands-of-years-old prophecy penned by a deeply suspicious and ignorant people. And Maher has no trouble finding scores of people who claim to welcome the destruction of everything since they expect to "be with Jesus." They even call the event "the rapture."

He's not going to make faith go away, especially--given the corelation between a lack of education and the fervency of religious faith--without giving people a functional educational underpinning, something which was supposed to be compulsory in this country but many seem to have missed the boat--up to and including the highest levels of public service. But if he can get people to at least approach their faith with a healthy skepticism about its literal truth, he will have accomplished something worthwhile.

As subject matter, the film is vital and important. As craft, it's nicely made. As entertainment, it's touch and go.

Grade: B


Jeffy said...

This is a movie that I'd love to have the believers see, but I've been afraid that it would not be something that I'd want to watch myself. While I'd probably enjoy much of the humor, I think it is also quite likely that I'd end up more annoyed than entertained.

wunelle said...

You might like it as a rental, but having the lunacy up on the big screen for two inescapable hours is just depressing...

Karlo said...

I don't think the film is going to convince anybody. While I enjoyed Maher's reflections, the interviews seemed a bit heavy-handed. Still, I guess that anyone willing to take on such a touchy topic deserves credit.