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SIDEBAR: Film review

`Religulous' a satirical tour de farce

Eds: see mainbar, RNS-MAHER-FILM, also transmitted Oct. 1.

525 words

Categories: c,e

c. 2008 Religion News Service

His new film, “Religulous,” is an impassioned, mocking, sarcastic and at points enraged sermon against faith. “The plain fact,” he says, as he fulminates toward his conclusion, “is that religion must die for mankind to live.”

So, OK, scratch him off the guest list for your next church social.

Unless you're an easily offended fundamentalist — in other words, Maher's prime target and interview subject here — you'll probably laugh at something in “Religulous.” Smart and quick, Maher thinks well on his feet. Director Larry Charles wittily uses old film clips, subtitles and other ironic tricks (some similar to the ones he used directing “Borat.”)

But even if you're an atheist, you have to admit the film is the equivalent of a “Kick me” sign.

Like “Borat,” “Religulous” revels in its own snide superiority, as it deliberately takes advantage. It's not just that Maher's been doing standup comedy and interviews for more than 30 years; it's that he deliberately picks opponents below his weight class, choosing amateurs for toe-to-toe debates on the inerrancy of the Bible or the peaceful message of the Quran.

They're set-ups, pure and simple.

So Maher scores points debating Christian theology with a guy who plays Jesus in a theme park? Impressive. But isn't there, perhaps, a more educated theologian he could have spoken to?

Is the rabbi who went to Iran to attend a conference of anti-Holocaust scholars (don't ask) really the only member of the Jewish clergy that Maher can find to interview?

It's a fixed fight and misleading advertising — Maher's real quarrel is with humorless fundamentalists, but the film is presented as though it's all religion itself he's taking on (and easily defeating). Maher crows about discrepancies in the Bible or alternative messianic myths as if he's the one who discovered them; actually, if he bothered to talk to any real religious scholars, he might discover that, when it comes to those debates, they were there first.

For a man who once hosted a show called “Politically Incorrect,” the film also, weirdly, pulls some punches. Although Maher seeks out fringe fundamentalists, when it comes to Catholic priests he interviews the mildest and most modern of men; Jews are covered, briefly, but millions of Buddhists and Hindus are ignored. A true atheist can find foolishness in any Scripture, but apparently there are some icons even Maher won't smash.

Although “Religulous” is funnier, and not nearly quite as delirious as “Expelled” — a similarly sardonic “documentary,” which drew a direct line between Charles Darwin and the Nazis — it's still just as badly argued, hurting its own case by overstating some facts, and ignoring others.

In the end, for all its genuflections toward free inquiry and rational debate, Maher is as close-minded as any of the preachers he despises. He's a lot funnier, of course, and his movie is far more entertaining. But, like them, he's still selling his own all-or-nothing version of the truth — and demanding we believe.