You may find my review of the film Religulous spoils the themes in the documentary, so if you would prefer to see the movie before reading my review then do not read below the fold…
Yesterday I went to watch Religulous (not “Religious” as the bill-board at Cinema Nouveau Bedford Square would have us think). I didn’t pick the main show which was showing at 20h15, well, simply because I couldn’t wait that long. It seems that I picked a time when old people like to watch movies before going to bed because I was in the minority of non-sliver-hair-brigade members. I haven’t felt so young in a long time! The turnout was pretty shocking, about 12 to 15 people.
There were a lot of very funny moments in the film. What else would you expect from Maher? Although as a debate, all together it was a little one-sided. Bill does most of the talking and there are a few edits of a silent opposition who seem not to be able to answer his questions. Quite a lot of it isn’t fair debate and I can imagine that most of the people who took part in the film may have a gripe that they were not fairly presented and I would agree – especially when Bill would ask a question and the opponent’s answer was replaced by a clip from a movie or a cartoon for comic effect and they then moved on to Bill’s next question. There were also times where Larry Charles introduced translated subtitles for Arabs speaking off-camera but obviously not saying what the subtitles read and an old Rabbi whose telephone conversation was heavily edited to portray him as someone who couldn’t use modern technology and was a confused old man. I also think that much of the silliness in the film will lead many religious people to say that “Bill doesn’t get it” and “that’s not what religion is about to me” and mischaracterise atheists as people who just don’t understand religion.
Maher tries to make the point all the way though the film that he is only interested in asking questions and he really wants to get everybody asking questions (and I agree) but it seems to me that he would rather ask the questions than enter into a debate.
For that reason I would say that Richard Dawkins’ documentaries Root of All Evil (including the uncut interviews) and Enemies of Reason excel where Bill Maher failed but failed where Bill Maher succeeded (in having a humorous movie with broader appeal).
Dawkins better presents the new atheism, which is about open debate, whereas Maher appears to propose a kind of rebellious dissent, a “nobody knows” agnosticism. Bill did get a bit preachy in the closing monologue and I did think that one of his main themes of “The only thing I hate more than prophecy is self-fulfilling prophecy” kind of shot itself in the foot. Maher argues that the prophecies of the Qu’ran and the New Testament are prophecies that the nuclear-weapon-wielding religious nations can fulfil, that if Christians and Muslims really want the prophecies to come true, then now is the time when man has the technological ability to do so. He despairs at the violence of the armageddon prophecies, but does so by prophesying a violent armageddon.
I feel that Scientology wasn’t given a roasting at all, and here the film makers really dropped the ball. There was a brief 5 minute scene of Maher standing in Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner explaining the central tenets of Scientology’s alien origins to bemused Londoners, interspersed with brief clips of Tom Cruise laughing maniacally and John Travolta avoiding questions about his beliefs. And where was the pareidolia referred to in the award-winning “toast” poster.
In conclusion, I would say that if, like me, you were hoping to see relevant points raised and an interesting (yet comical) debate it will be disappointing. But if you are interested in seeing a funny documentary that will have you laughing all the way to the end then I’d recommend it. If you watch this film for only one reason, make it for the interview with the “maverick” Catholic priest interviewed at Saint Peter’s Square – it is the weirdest interview I have ever heard from a Catholic priest – it still makes me smile.
It may seem that I am being overly critical of the film, but to put it into perspective, within the genre of popular film documentaries, I would rate this higher than Farenheit 911 and The Inconvenient Truth which were both high-earning box-office hits.