Monday, September 8, 2008

TIFF 2008: Religulous

Religulous (U.S., 2008) directed by Larry Charles, 101 minutes (Winter Garden Theatre)

I think I described last year how beautifully kitschy and odd the Winter Garden is which seeks to recreate a forest or garden complete with flowers, vines, trellises and painted doorways. It's beautiful in a precious sort of fairy tale way conjuring up an enchanted forest from which some horrible witch might pounce. It's a small theatre, comfortable and intimate and lovingly restored. You take, literally, two staircases and three escalators to reach it above the Elgin Theatre on Yonge St. As you trudge upwards you begin to feel that you are are entering a wonderful, special place so it seems to be little odd as a showcase for this satirical documentary on organized religion.

Comedian Bill Maher is not really my ideal progressive social commentator; however, he is taking on a relevant and controversial topic: organized religion.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all come under scrutiny as he travels the world questioning, mocking and probing into the beliefs of all three major religions. Topical too, as the media examines the Pentecostal Christian beliefs of Republican Veep nominee Sarah Palin.

He argues the bible with truckers in a "truckers' chapel", wrestles verbally with an "ex-gay" leader of a Christian organization counseling "former" gay men and women who want to go straight; talks to former Mormon followers.

Jews and the followers of Islam are not exempt ... Jews who oppose the existence of the state of Israel or Jews who invent gadgets to circumvent the prohibitions of the Sabbath, Jews that consort with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a holocaust denier).

He challenges (or engages) Islamic believers in Holland on the site where the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered about whether the Koran preaches violence against the infidel, senior priests at the Vatican, ex-Mormons in Salt Lake City, Jews for Jesus selling Christina icons, Jesus impersonators in Orlando, Scientology, creationists at a Holy Land theme park in Orlando. The man has parts, I'll give him that.

Interspersed with all this live footage are snippets of biblical and religious movies, cartoons, commercials, news footage, etc ... all to underscore the fact that organized religion is ridiculous. But it is easy to make fun of these people because they are ridiculous and represent the extreme end of the spectrum. So what's the point? These are all easy targets and I did laugh, repeatedly.

But are we really meant to think that all religious people are stupid and illogical and worthy of our scorn merely because they believe?

Larry Charles, the director of both Seinfeld and Borat fame, slouched on stage afterwards swinging his mike like an incense holder. He appeared complete with a ZZ Top gray beard, fedora and shabby black suit and made some sharp quips about wearing a kevlar jacket and how his death by outraged extremists would made a great extra feature on the DVD. As I said, these guys do have parts.

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