A new film by director Larry Charles, Religulous documents the travels of comedian Bill Maher as he interviews a variety of scholars, politicians, religious leaders, and average people about the current state of religion. Despite being labeled a documentary, the film only strives to objectively document Maher’s personal beliefs. Charles and Maher have created a film that is at times entertaining, but disappointing in its refusal to take on the true complexity of the issue.
Documentaries ideally attempt historical contextualization of people and events, but as the genre becomes more editorialized it does less to help the individual causes of a given film, and more to cast doubt on all truths. Though he did not invent the genre of editorial documentary, Michael Moore certainly popularized the format with Bowling for Columbine and the subsequent Fahrenheit 9/11. Since those films, Moore has inspired a slew of opinion-based documentary films that claim to turn over the stone of some political figure or movement to reveal corruption or conspiracy.
Some of these films have been conservative backlash against Moore himself—Farenhype 9/11, Michael Moore Hates America. Others have been part of the invigorated market for subjective documentary, especially about religion—Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, The Case for a Creator, Fireproof, and now Religulous. Maher’s film falls slightly more respectable than most of its peers, because it emphasizes the idea of doubting faith rather than spreading propaganda. But it never quite rises above an altitude of smart-alecky antics or stand-up diatribe, and certainly, like its peers, it will not sway the undecided, but rather massage the choir.
I have been an admirer of Bill Maher for many years now. He is at times a provocative and insightful public figure, who provides probably the most open forum for discussion on all of television with his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. His collaborator, Larry Charles, a writer with an impressive background in comedy himself, is mostly known for directing the 2006 box office hit Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It is ultimately the comedic talents of the pair that hold Religulous back, deferring to jokes too often. The comedic documentary format that worked so well in Borat, as a satire with a fictional character, comes off as churlish in this film, against the backdrop of an academic setting. Attempts at humor result in splices of old cinema reels, stock footage, and subtitles that undermine interviewees, who often end up serving as nothing more than rhetorical props to illustrate Maher’s running editorial. Cue footage of fish swimming in a barrel.
Maher and Charles, avowed secularists and avid agnostics, essentially make a three-point central thesis: 1. the things that religion purports to know are unknowable, and 2. religion has pit people against each other throughout world history, because of these irrational beliefs. The third point is made in a final narration by Maher, while standing in the overlapping holy land of the three major religions of the world. The film’s conclusion is that at a time when dangerous technology is so prevalent, the irrationality of religion needs to be confronted before religious extremism meets nuclear technology. Cue stock footage of exploding atom bombs.
I would not argue against the merits of Maher and Charles’ point of view, but rather the aptitude of their film. Interesting conversations are often never concluded, or more frustratingly, people are cut off by Maher, and no rebuttal is shown. Religulous is not terrible though, and has some truly absorbing scenes. A notable one is a visit with a “formerly gay” leader of a Christian organization that promises to convert homosexuals back to heterosexuals through the power of prayer. The most successful portion of the film is an unpredictable tour through a Creationist theme park, which yields candid moments as random patrons take part in Maher’s dialogue.
Though the intention is not objective documentation, Religulous can be intermittently insightful in its own way. But as the credits roll, and the laughter dies down, one begins to wonder what the point of the whole thing was. Cue no progress in raising the level of discourse about religion.