The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

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Date: Sun, 12 Oct 2008 22:37:15 -0400
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Religulous

Reviewed by Roger Ebert
October 2, 2008

Ebert: ***1/2    Users: ***1/2

Cast & Credits
Lionsgate presents a film directed by Larry Charles.
Written by Bill Maher. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated
R (for some language and sexual material). Opening today
at local theaters.

I'm going to try to review Bill Maher's "Religulous"
without getting into religion. Is that OK with
everybody? Good. I don't want to fan the flames of a
holy war. The movie is about organized religions:
Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, TV evangelism
and even Scientology, with detours into pagan cults and
ancient Egypt. Bill Maher, host, writer and debater,
believes they are all crazy. He fears they could lead us
prayerfully into mutual nuclear doom. He doesn't get
around to Hinduism or Buddhism, but he probably doesn't
approve of them, either.

This review is going to depend on one of my own deeply
held beliefs: It's not what the movie is about, it's how
it's about it. This movie is about Bill Maher's opinion
of religion. He's very smart, quick and funny, and I
found the movie entertaining, although sometimes he's a
little mean to his targets. He visits holy places in
Italy, Israel, Great Britain, Florida, Missouri and
Utah, and talks with adherents of the religions he finds
there, and others.

Or maybe "talks with" is not quite the right phrase.
It's more that he lines them up and shoots them down. He
interrupts, talks over, slaps on subtitles, edits in
movie and TV clips, and doesn't play fair. Reader, I
took a guilty pleasure in his misbehavior. The people he
interviews are astonishingly forbearing, even most of
the truckers in a chapel at a truck stop. I expected
somebody to take a swing at Maher, but nobody did,
although one trucker walked out on him. Elsewhere in the
film, Maher walks out on a rabbi who approvingly
attended a Holocaust denial conference in Iran.

Maher had a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and was
raised as a Catholic until he was 13, when his father
stopped attending services. He speaks with his elderly
mother, who tells him, "I don't know why he did that. We
never discussed it." He asks her what the family
believed, before and after that event. "I don't know
what we believed," she says. No, she's not confused. She
just doesn't know.

Most everybody else in the film knows what they believe.
If they don't, Maher does. He impersonates a
Scientologist at the Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde
Park, and says Scientology teaches that there was a race
of Thetans several trillion years old (older than the
universe, which is only 13.73 billion years) and that we
are born with Thetans inside us, which can be detected
by an E-Meter, on sale at your local Scientology center,
and driven out by "auditing," which takes a long time
and unfortunately costs money.

Many of Maher's confrontations involve logical questions
about holy books. For example, did Jonah really live for
three days in the belly of a large fish? There are
people who believe it. Is the End of Days at hand? A
U.S. senator says he thinks so. Will the Rapture occur
in our lifetimes? Widespread agreement. Mormons believe
Missouri will be the paradise ("Branson, I hope," says
Maher). There are even some people who believe Alaska
has been chosen as a refuge for the Saved After
Armageddon. In Kentucky, Maher visits the Creation
Museum, which features a diorama of human children
playing at the feet of dinosaurs.

His two most delightful guests, oddly enough, are
priests stationed in the Vatican. Between them, they
cheerfully dismiss wide swaths of what are widely
thought to be Catholic teachings, including the
existence of Hell. One of these priests almost dissolves
in laughter as he mentions various beliefs that I, as a
child, solemnly absorbed in Catholic schools. The other
observes that when Italians were polled to discover who
was the first person they would pray to in a crisis,
Jesus placed sixth.

Maher meets two representations of Jesus. One is an
actor at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando.
He stars in a re-enactment of the Passion, complete with
crown of thorns, wounds, a crucifix, and Roman soldiers
with whips. I suppose I understand why Florida tourists
would take snapshots of this ordeal, but when Jesus
stumbles, falls and is whipped by soldiers, I was a
little puzzled why they applauded. The other Jesus, Jose
Luis de Jesus Miranda, believes he actually is the
Second Coming -- i.e., Jesus made flesh in our time. He
explains how the bloodline traveled from the Holy Land
through France to Spain to Puerto Rico. He has 100,000

Why have I focused on the Christians? Maher also has
interesting debates with Muslims about whether the Koran
calls for the death of infidels. And he interviews an
Israeli manufacturer who invents devices to sidestep the
bans on Sabbath activity. Since the laws prohibit you
from operating machines, for example, they've invented a
"negative telephone." Here's how it works: All the
numbers on the touchpad are constantly engaged. All you
do is insert little sticks into holes beside the numbers
you don't want to work.

I have done my job and described the movie. I report
faithfully that I laughed frequently. You may very well
hate it, but at least you've been informed. Perhaps you
could enjoy the material about other religions, and tune
out when yours is being discussed. That's only human


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