Column a day early for, ironically enough, religious reasons

October 8th, 2008

Quick — what’s the difference between Satan and the anti-Christ?
Off the top of my head, I have no idea. My only knowledge of the subject comes from a comic book, “Chosen,” by Mark Millar (which might be only one step down from researching on Wikipedia). But according to comedian Bill Maher, there are many people of the Christian faith who have no idea either. But that doesn’t matter to them, because it’s all about faith, duh, not the actual details.
“Religulous,” now in theaters, is Maher’s documentary about religion. Rather, it’s Maher’s documentary about how he hates religion. He travels through the United States, England, Israel, The Vatican and the Netherlands, not really in search of anything, but to prove a point. His point — and it’s very well made — is that no one has the answers, not anyone who claims to understand God, not anyone who claims to be God (there’s a Puerto Rican minister who believes he’s the second coming of Christ, literally) and certainly not Bill Maher. And, that many, many people of faith have very little understanding of their actual religion.
In one scene, a trucker storms out of an interview at a truck stop chapel. He doesn’t want to hear anything Maher has to say, contradictory to his faith, or worse yet, that might get him to think. A Vatican priest comes off much, much better, understanding the nuances between religion and science, faith and history.
It’s a very funny movie, sure to offend and sure to foster conversation. I like Bill Maher, I think he’s a funny guy. He’s very sharp, but he’ll hit you over the head with a point (see: the Apocalypse-is-upon-us conclusion to “Religulous”). I agree with pretty much of Maher’s points about blind faith, fundamentalism and the inherent dangers thereof. But he misses a really big point — for all of religion’s dangers, there’s a lot of good. Yes, people bomb abortion clinics in the name of Jesus, but others feed the homeless and help impoverished countries in his name too. That’s a major point “Religulous” completely ignored.
But that’s not why I was interested. I was much more interested in director Larry Charles than anything to do with the content of the movie. Charles, best known for directing “Borat,” utilizes a lot of the same guerrilla techniques here, too. Small crew. Films without permission. Isn’t upfront about the purpose of the movie. Indeed, in “Religulous” it seemed just about every other person Maher interviewed began a sentence with “I’m not sure what this documentary is about, but…”
But, there’s a big difference between this movie and “Borat.” None of Borat’s subjects knew they were being had. They were given pages of release forms minutes before the interview and somewhat tricked into appearing in an R-rated movie where two men run naked through a hotel. Everyone in “Religulous” had some idea of who Bill Maher was, even if they didn’t know the point of the movie.
So it’s really weird when a lot of “Religulous” comes off as mean-spirited and “Borat” is just silly. There’s never a sense in “Borat” that Sacha Baron Cohen is out to attack or humiliate his subjects. He’s playing a good natured (perverted) idiot, eager to make friends in a foreign country. That his subjects are made fools of — misogynistic frat boys, Congressmen and Southern aristocrats — are entirely their fault for being stupid enough to say stupid things on camera. Borat merely provides the set up, the subjects become the punchline.
Bill Maher is playing himself. That his subjects say stupid things (check out the Senator from Arkansas’s reaction after he laughs about how it’s a good thing there’s no intelligence test for public office) are also their faults, but here, it’s just so… mean spirited.
I wasn’t sure why I felt this way when I left the theater. Logically, “Borat” should be the mean-spirited one, tricking people into situations where a bag of feces is presented at a dinner party. But it’s not. It’s “Religulous,” and, after giving it some thought, I think it all boils down to interview technique. Borat wants to make friends, Maher wants to make points. Borat’s friendly and inquisitive, Maher is abrasive and demanding. That’s journalism 101. Just be nice to people.
Which, come to think of it, would have been a much better point for “Religulous’s” conclusion. 
Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeieserike@insidenova.com.

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