Whenever a film is said to be “still in the edit” shortly before release, it can generally mean one of two things. Most often it means the film is terrible and producers have demanded drastic changes before letting anyone near it, more rarely that the film is terrible but has a tie-in to a franchise and is protecting curiosity-driven ticket sales by hiding it from critics, used to great effect on the release of Sex and the City and Mama Mia, now Britain’s highest ever grossing film.
When, at the last Britdoc festival, it was revealed that the long awaited premiere of anti-fundamentalist docu-comedy Religulous (out now in the US, UK release 3rd April) would not be a full showing, but simply some clips with commentary from director Larry Charles, (formerly of Borat and Seinfeld) I wondered which it would be. Bill Maher, the film’s star, has a big following in the States but is almost unknown in the UK, so a delay to profit from his reputation was probably out, leaving a drastic repositioning of the film as the most likely cause of the postponement, coupled with a general slowing of production as a result of the screenwriter’s strike.
The version out now in American cinemas is very different from than the clips I saw last summer, and my unease that the film was squandering an opportunity to ask some useful questions about religious belief at a very important time has grown. Maher spends the majority of his time and vitriol travelling through the poorest parts of the world’s richest country, using his superior knowledge of the Bible to belittle the sincere, if confused, beliefs of those he comes across. In the summer showing, though a little unkind in its humour (the scene at the daily (daily?) passion play at Orlando’s The Holy Land Experience theme park which was shot from behind a row of enormous Floridian bottoms sticks in my memory), it still seemed more funny than nasty, but in the most recent version the whole tone has been punched up another level.
A scene in which Maher ribs a well-dressed minister for spending church money on his lizard skin shoes is preceded by a sequence featuring demands from the worst of the crooked televangelists, and one in which Maher meets an obviously troubled but basically friendly “ex-gay” advocate follows shots of “God Hates Fags” demonstrations by the ludicrous fringe group the Westboro Baptist Church, hardly representative of mainstream Christian opinion regarding homosexuality.
The film feels as though the filmmakers couldn’t decide on whether to go for a laugh from the audience or needle their ideological opponents, and in the time intervening it seems they have settled on the latter. Interviews are punctuated with cutaways which seem to be chosen more to make political points than be amusing, although I did give a proper belly laugh when “Dr” Jeremiah Cummings, the aforementioned lizard-skin shod minister, stumbles gobsmacked for an answer, and there is a quick cut to an early passion film showing Jesus being slapped by a centurion. The later cutaways during this interview seemed more cruel, cutting in a shot of a gruesome suicide bombing to a remark about turning the full force of one’s passion towards God and one comparing the blinged up black preacher to a pimp flashing his gold in a way that should make liberal viewers more than slightly uncomfortable.
One of the key arguments of the film is Maher’s idea that good things occur without the need for religious intervention, that without the ten commandments people would still be aware that murder is wrong, and points to secular countries that enjoy all the benefits that his interviewees claim are the exclusive preserve of a Godly society. The trouble is, he seems to forget that paedophilia is not unique to the Catholic church, and that stupid ideas about gays and Jews are more commonly linked to class than religious belief.
The most uncomfortable scene in the film is one of the very first, where Maher travels to a truckstop chapel and mocks the truckers whose modest place of worship it is. Their beliefs might not be as clear as an unmuddied lake, but they are clearly deeply held, and it isn’t pleasant to see them struggle to defend themselves against a much better armed opponent.
In a country like the United States class is signified more by intellect and education than birthright, where a black Chicago lawyer fears the elitist label more than the son of a president. Charles and Maher, pair of rich, highly educated secular Jews, seem to hide behind their criticism of religion to poke snobby fun at a succession of members of America’s great class of poor or uneducated or both, and it ends up feeling as though you’re watching a precocious child winding up his teachers than (however comic) an adult documentary.