Early on in Religulous, Bill Maher throws up a bar chart illustrating the number of people in America who are non-religious. That number is 16%, more than blacks, more than Jews, more than numerous other minority groups who seem to have no problem making themselves heard and getting Congress to do their bidding. Maher wonders aloud why non-religious people are so underground, and why they arenít having an impact on the national discussion. His film is aimed squarely at that 16% of the country, and almost no one else. His goal, and he clearly has one, is to give those people the motivation they need to come out of the closet and do somethingÖ before itís too late.
Religulous begins with Bill Maher, standing alone in Israel at a place called Meggido; a worthless pile of rubble where many of the planetís religions believe the end of the world will begin. From there, Maher pushes us into an intense, honest, and brutally funny discussion of blind belief, presenting the possibility that maybe we should all consider doubt instead. We follow him around the world, as he travels from place to place talking to religious people of different faiths on different continents. The surprising thing here is that even though Maher definitely has an agenda, his movie never skews into the realm of propaganda.
Itís not propaganda, because Maher isnít running out and finding weirdos to use in smear tactics against the devout. Typically anyone trying to make a case against God goes right to the pedophile priests and the suicide bombers, but Maher makes it a point to focus on normal, reasonably sane religious people. Heís not stacking the deck in his favor, because he doesnít need to. He talks to truckers in a roadside chapel, he chats with random, middle-class tourists at a Christian-themed amusement park. He talks to religious shop owners, small town preachers, televanglists, Jews for Jesus, fundamentalist U.S. Senators, Vatican priests, religious scientists, secular Muslims, gay Muslims, people in America, Utah (come on, we all know itís not really America), Europe, and even in Jerusalem. Though those fumbling for an excuse to discredit him may claim otherwise, these arenít extremists or lunatics. These are for the most part sane, rational, even intelligent people who believe something which Maher believes is insane.
Maher lets these people talk, but he doesnít let them get away with fooling anyone, including themselves. He asks about their beliefs, and then refuses to follow the cultural taboos which demand he let it go when they say something ridiculous. He talks to them plainly and without fear, asking the tough questions for which religion, any kind of religion, seems to have no answer. Some of them get angry, most of them simply, and politely, shut down; their brains refusing to go any further when he brings up a point of view which might cause them to objectively consider their blind faith. Others, unable to cope with his queries, admit to being genuinely stupid, as did an Arkansas Senator who awkwardly excuses his flawed thinking by admitting that his job as an elected official doesnít require an IQ test.
Maher doesnít ambush any of these people, and I think thatís the key to why Religulous works. This isnít a setup. He asks intelligent, well considered, extremely direct questions of the people he encounters, with each question leading to another, forming a discussion which while often extremely funny, is also almost scientific in its method. Heís not out to trap people or make anyone look like a fool, though if they do it on their own heís not going to turn away. Sarcastic subtitles occasionally appear to turn up the funny, but it never becomes snide or condescending. Maher himself admits to a past in which he had religious leanings, and when he gets a reasonable answer to one of his queries, heís willing to admit his own admiration and surprise. The smartest answers come, unbelievably, from a guy who makes his living playing Jesus dress-up. The movie frames itself from the outset as a quest for knowledge, and believe it or not, in large part thatís what it is.
To keep things rolling, director Larry Charles uses old stock footage between the moments of Maherís encounters. Itís not meant as mockery, merely comic relief. Iím not sure Religulous needed it, Maherís discussions alone will have you rolling in the aisles. But those random little asides provide breaks in the movieís intensity, a moment to pause and consider, through the laughter, the truth of whatever it is youíve just seen. Those inserts arenít manipulative though, merely silly and Charles seems otherwise to go out of his way to give his movie a strange kind of transparency. The movieís edited, yes, but Charles doesnít shy away from showing us the scene around their setup. The camera crew shows up more than once on screen, and Larry Charles himself is occasionally heard, as if to remind us that heís there, and heís not trying to hide anything.
Religulous seems to know however, that no matter how genuine or factual or well thought out it is, itíll never get through to anyone outside of that 16% referenced at the outset. So it isnít trying. Bill Maher is not out to change anyoneís mind, just remind the ones who already know of how dangerously ridiculous this whole thing is. For most of the movieís running time he lets the game come to him, delivering comedy and poignancy with an unwavering, steady style.
Itís only in the filmís big finish that Religulous steps back to where it all started at Meggido, and really gets serious. There, standing on that heap of religious rubble, Bill asks his audience to remember what theyíve seen, to look at the world around them, and realize where itís all taking us. He calls on those skeptics in the 16% to stand up and be counted, to make their voice heard, before itís too late for the human race. With an agenda like that, Religulous will likely cause a mental meltdown for anyone with a religious bent. But for the people Bill Maher is trying to reach, his message comes in loud and clear. If youíre in that 16%, youíll be rocked right out of your seat, either from laughter or sheer incredulity. If Maher has his way, non-believers will see his film, stand up, be counted, and come out of hiding to say ďI donít knowÖ and neither do you.Ē
Reviewed By: Josh Tyler