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''Religulous' Is Brilliant, Incendiary

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Skeptics unite: You have nothing to lose but your inhibitions. That, in sum, is the underlying message of Bill Maher and Larry Charles' brilliant, incendiary Religulous, in which comedian/talk show host Maher inquires of the religious faithful and finds them severely wanting. By providing an example to other nonbelievers, Maher is, um, hell-bent on launching an even more aggressive conversation on the legitimacy of religion than he has on HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher. Destined for tons of free media, this documentary looks primed for serious numbers in theatrical and video heaven.

The only recent comparable example of entertainers venturing into such serious cultural-political territory is Penn & Teller's Showtime series, Bulls---!, which skewers sacred cows from a skeptical-libertarian perspective. Charles' previous smash, Borat, used funnyman Sacha Baron Cohen to make satirical/political points, but the particular intensity and seriousness of Maher's project are nearly unprecedented.

Standing at the spot where believers say Armageddon will be waged (Megiddo, Israel) Maher opens his case with a warning that those who believe in a so-called "end of days" may be making a self-fulfilling prophecy. The scene also suggests the considerable globe-trotting Charles, Maher and their crew did for the film, from heartland America to Amsterdam to the Holy Land to the Vatican, and also establishes Charles and cinematographer Anthony Hardwick's method of covering every segment with two cameras.

Maher devotes the first hour to the Christian faith, weighted toward evangelism, with amusing personal recollections of growing up Catholic with a Jewish mom. Not missing a beat, he even interviews his mom, Julie (who died after filming), and sister, Kathy, in the New Jersey church they attended, uncovering exactly why his parents left the church -- their use of birth control.

In a string of frank, often hilarious but always well-considered conversations with various Christians, Maher incisively asks them what skeptics always ponder about religion in general and Christianity in particular. To John Westcott of Exchange Ministries, which tries to "convert" gay men, Maher asks, given that Jesus never once talked about homosexuality, why is it such an issue for New Testament Christians? To churchgoers in Raleigh, N.C., he notes there's no firm proof that Jesus Christ ever actually lived. Perhaps most profoundly, he asks Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a devout evangelical, "Why is faith good?"

To the film's credit, Maher never engages in Michael Moore-style gotcha tactics, but rather asks questions that raise more questions, in the form of a Socratic dialogue. To believers expecting a blind hatchet job, this will prove both thought-provoking and a bit disarming; skeptics may be surprised (as Maher is) by the occasionally smart replies to his queries.

The pic gets in satirical digs at all faiths (and yields some of its biggest laughs) with clever inserts of clips from movies and other sources spinning off the topic at hand, be it fantastical Biblical tales, Mormon beliefs or the number of empires that have invaded Israel. Snarky subtitles are often inserted underneath conversations, meant to undercut the interview subject.

Latter section turns to Judaism and Islam, of which Maher is an equal-opportunity critic. Jewish laws around the Sabbath come in for some heavy ribbing, while the current wave of violence by wings of Islam is faced head-on. Chats with Muslims, from rapper Propa-Gandhi to scholars at the holiest Jerusalem sites, expose an internal debate raging among contemporary Muslims.

While he examines the big three religions of the West at length (Eastern faiths get a pass in "Religulous"), Maher even gets in some choice stabs at Mormonism (whose tenets may astound those not in the know) and Scientology.

The ending minutes, though, will catch audiences up short: Suddenly, the laughs die down, and, as in his closing monologues on "Real Time," Maher turns deadly serious with a final statement that will stir raging arguments in theater lobbies.

Considering he was once a minor comic and a supporting actor in generally awful film comedies, Maher's transformation into one of America's sharpest social critics is remarkable. He takes no script credit, but his periodic monologues to the camera are undeniably written, and written well.

Charles basically lets Maher do his thing, and does little other than record scenes as they happen. Tech credits of significant note belong to editors Jeffrey Werner, Jeff Groth and Christian Kinnard, who have assembled what must have been a daunting pile of footage into a notably sharp and smooth-running feature that never lags for a second. Behind the scenes, the research team of Robyn Adams, Chelsea Barnard and Sophie Charles supports Maher with considerable data.

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