February 16, 2009

Review by Gil Kellerman

Director Larry Charles has taken the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-cinematic-pants approach that he used on Borat and applied it to Religulous, the documentary about religion starring comedian Bill Maher. In the film, Maher (who grew up with a Catholic father and Jewish mother, long ago renounced belief in any religion or higher power) travels the globe — everywhere from the United States’ Bible Belt to Salt Lake City to Amsterdam to Jerusalem to the Vatican — with religion on the mind. His quest is twofold. On one level, it’s an effort to expose/understand/ridicule the non-secular beliefs of the world. On another, it’s an examination of how (seemingly) level-headed people can be so influenced by and subscribe so heartily to what Maher refers to as “fairy tales for adults.”

Depending on your own personal beliefs, Religulous spans a range of audience reactions, from fascinating to hilarious to incendiary. It will be offensive to some (although chances are, the title alone would scare off the most susceptible to rage at the subject matter), eye-opening to others. The documentary is fearless in the questions it raises and there seems to be no better man for the job than the taboo-confronting Maher, who joked about faith on stage back in his earlier standup days.

The movie is clearly one-sided and makes no apologies about being that way. Maher’s out to prove a point and unlike Michael Moore, he doesn’t set people up. The comedian asks his questions directly and doesn’t try to play mind games. Although at times, he and director Charles seem more interested in poking fun at certain belief systems than actually trying to understand the motivations behind them. But this one-sidedness may be the movie’s main flaw. The film focuses a lot of (deserved) attention on the amount of violence that has occurred in the name of religion. But it also neglects to consider the benefits that many religions have provided, such as charities and a sense of hope and community.

The movie works best when even the most devout followers of faiths acknowledge there may in fact be cracks in their belief systems. Case in point, Latinist for the Pope Father Reginald Foster’s agreement with Maher: “Hell, Virgin Birth – all ridiculous old stories”.

Maher gets a bit preachy in the film’s ending moments, but there’s no denying the power of the movie’s final visuals: a disturbing montage of man’s violent inhumanity to man in the name of religion.


The commentary by director Charles and Maher is lively and insightful and it’s fascinating to hear how the filmmakers found certain interview subjects and how closely they often were to being arrested and/or physically escorted off certain locations.

Not many of the deleted scenes are standout or memorable, save for the one where Maher visits with a group of polygamists’ wives. This is a section that pleads for more attention and it’s sad that we’re only given about a minute’s worth of footage. The comedian’s tacit reactions alone to some of the women are priceless and it would have been fascinating to see the rest of the interview.

Final Grade: B (film) B (extras)

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