In April of this year, Barack Obama was taking a lot of heat for saying he'd be willing to talk to the leaders of the Shi'ite nation of Iran. Yet at the same time, the head of another theocratic state one whose agents in this country had committed devastating crimes against hundreds of thousands of young Americans came to the U.S. and received a warm welcome from President Bush, the national press and most of the American people. He even got to say Mass before a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium.
That Pope Benedict XVI and Ayatollah Khameini of Iran can elicit such differing, intense reactions for that matter, that even comparing the two might seem incendiary to some Catholics is one indication how religious belief informs political and social doctrine. Some of that contentiousness has lately seeped into moviegoing. Our texts for today are two indie films, Religulous and Fireproof, that appeal to diametrically opposed audiences. I can't imagine that there'd be a person who could respond to both films the way their makers want. If these movies happen to be playing in adjacent auditoriums at the multiplex, exhibitors might want to set up a police cordon.
Fireproof is a family drama, made in rural Georgia by two brothers who are evangelist ministers; it teaches that God is the best marriage counselor, and is made for Christian moviegoers. Religulous, a documentary written and hosted by comedian Bill Maher (of HBO's Real Time), deals with the most profound tenets of the major religions, and the idiots who take them seriously; its target audience is left-wing scoffers, infidels if you will or, as they prefer to be called, the reality-based community. Fireproof wears a badge of sweet solemnity, seeking the audience's empathy for decent people working to expiate their sins. The tone of Religulous (pronounced with a soft g, as in the conflation of religion and ridiculous) is impishly impious; Maher wants you to laugh at people who are stupid enough to believe things he doesn't.
Maher, who says he's not an atheist (because that implies a degree of certitude as dogmatic as religious belief) is more an atheist-leaning agnostic. But he does have the missionary spirit; he's certainly been proselytizing for Religulous. In early September he was at the Toronto Film Festival, accompanied by the movie's director, Larry Charles, who in his hat, shades and long beard looked like a hipster Muppet Dumbledore. On stage, Maher dismissed Sarah Palin, who had just given her big speech at the Republican National Convention, as a "full-fledged Jesus freak" with a medieval view of reproductive rights. ("She's got five kids; her daughter got knocked up. Don't these Republicans know how to pull out of anything?") And a few days ago, Maher got the royal treatment a two-segment interview, usually awarded only to major politicians like Bill Clinton on The Daily Show. It made for vigorous, entertaining television.
Which is what, at its infrequent best, Religulous is: not so much a movie, more a series of interviews with the kookier, clueless representatives of the faithful. Maher chats up one guy who used to be a Satanist priest and a fundamentalist minister whom God cured of being gay. He talks with born-again truckers, and some evangelists who make a plush living off the generous contributions of their cash-strapped communicants. He visits the Creation Museum and an Orlando theme park called the Holy Land Experience, where the actor playing Jesus flunks Maher's quiz on some of Christianity's knottier conundrums. On the plus side, he finds two Catholic priests with liberal takes on evolution and Vatican theology, and a couple of members of a very lonely minority: gay Muslim activists.
As someone with a similar bio-sketch to Maher's a religious skeptic raised in a middle-class Catholic family I might be expected to be a devout follower of Religulous. But I can't fully believe in it. Maher and Charles, the director of the Borat movie, should have come up with a rowdier, more penetrating exposé than this one. The film registers decently on the amuse-o-meter, and its offensiveness has a tonic value, but it's deficient in shape, propulsion, urgency. Look at almost any Michael Moore movie, and you'll find the sharp personality and editorial skills that are missing in Religulous.
There's no question that the kooks give good sound bites, and Void knows there's been enough evil committed in the names of Jesus and Mohammed. Still, I wanted Maher to confront, and be challenged by, the better class of believers: a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, perhaps, or some articulate Episcopalian or Islamist, or comedian and noted Catholic layman Stephen Colbert. Maher seems interested less in conversation than in confrontation, so his movie is less essay than inquisition. Maybe that tone will win Religulous some conversions, but this critic remains a skeptic.
(Read TIME's special report, Finding God on YouTube.)