Before the hate mail starts pouring in from people who will complain that I am giving too much attention to a movie that says there is no God I have to make a very important point. Religulous, the new film from Borat director Larry Charles and comedian Bill Maher doesn’t say there is no higher power. It simply suggests that there isn’t a great deal of evidence to support the generally accepted Christian idea of an all-knowing God. In fact they call the bible and its contents “fairy tales.” Somewhere controversy magnet Michael Moore is laughing because whatever film he chooses to make next will draw less heat from critics by comparison.
Calling Religulous a documentary isn’t quite right. In the same way that a Volkswagen looks like a Ferrari—they both have four wheels and an engine—Religulous only superficially resembles a documentary. There are loads of documentary staples—it’s packed with man-on-the-street interviews and shaky camera moves—but the thing that differentiates it from the work of Alan King and other documentarians is a complete lack of objectivity.
Charles and Maher set out to make a comedy with a bite; one that goes for laughs at the expense of any semblance of fair and balanced reporting. They intercut mocking (though usually amusing) songs and film clips into interviews, openly poking fun at their subjects. By the time a montage of performers at a Christian theme park is cut together to make them appear to be dancing to the Doobie Brothers’s hit Jesus is Just Alright by Me any hopes of unbiased reporting are completely dashed. This is as one-sided as it comes.
It’s all very jocular; with Maher’s wryly confrontational interview style and clever editing raising laughs all the way through, but like the films of Michael Moore Maher is likely preaching to the converted. As such his message that religion needs to be done away with before faith leads to the obliteration of mankind is never seriously challenged.
There isn’t much offered in the way of debate and those who seem to be onside with Maher, an ex-Vatican priest and, surprisingly, the Vatican astronomer, come off well. Everyone else, like a man who claims to be able to turn gay people straight through the use of faith and a Spanish preacher who claims he is the descendent of Christ, look out.
Other films have covered the same ground, Deliver Us from Evil and For the Bible Told Me So to name a couple, only minus the jokes. Religulous, however, is a film that values the humor more than its subject. It is definitely going to ruffle some feathers by raising difficult and for some—and by that I mean anyone who goes to church or has read the bible—uncomfortable questions, but is, ultimately little more than a superficial look at a complex and nuanced subject.