Curb your enthusiasm: Bill Maher explores our addiction to religion in Mill Valley's opening night feature, 'Religulous,' which gets a wider theatrical release in the Bay Area beginning Friday. (Photo courtesy Lions Gate)

Mill Valley Film Festival's Maher Moment

Dennis Harvey October 2, 2008

When you’re, say, 14, movies that "everyone" is dying to see come pretty often—they’re most likely the latest megabuck action-fantasy or comedy toy opening Friday at every multiplex in the land. As one gets older, such occasions grow fewer. Taste changes, people have more important things to do (is there a parent alive who hasn’t sighed "Oh, I can’t remember the last time we got out for a movie"?), and so much of the Hollywood fare available to most seems such—kidstuff.

But this week there is, in fact, a movie everyone I know is dying to see. It goes "wide" on Friday, but opens the Mill Valley Film Festival Thursday night. There’s no doubt every cranny of the Smith Rafael Film Center could be filled by locals who can’t wait even those extra few hours before its first regular commercial matinees. That movie would be Religulous, the desperately awaited (by some) and already vehemently decried (by others) film by director Larry Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and star/provocateur Bill Maher .

It is the documentary that dares to ask the question you just can’t ask in these United States, purported "separation between church and state" be (pun intended) damned: Is religion inherently stupid and historically destructive?

That’s Maher’s question. I myself can actually sort of admire if not entirely relate to certain people of religious conviction, when they a) practice what they preach, and b) what they preach is about peace, tolerance, and charity etc., not c) Hellfire, End Times, and why God has a luxury afterlife planned for me but not the likes of you.

Trouble is, in these times there seem to be a lot of folks whose answer to "What would Jesus (or any other prophet/divinity) do?" might be "Bomb the sinners/infidels/others who don’t share our beliefs." As Maher points out—notably in a climactic rant that’s more envelope-pushingly agitprop than even Michael Moore has dared—these people are now everywhere, and the bombs currently in mankind’s possession might easily destroy all humanity. Over what? Differing "fairy tales" of religious belief, as he puts it.

In a perfect act of counterprogramming, the 31st MVFF has another opening night film that promises to be as balming as Religulous is incendiary. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Secret Life of Bees is based on Sue Monk Kidd’s charming bestseller; it stars Dakota Fanning as a 1960s white South Carolinan teen taken in by a blood-sisterhood of strong black women (Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo); it’s about faith in a sense, and aims for inspirational uplift. One can only imagine the hole Bill Maher’s tongue would rip in it within 30 snarky seconds. But hey: I enjoyed the novel.

By contrast, Religulous disrespects its literary sources (most notably the Bible and Koran), and does not want to leave you warm and fuzzy but hot ‘n’ bothered. Maher seeks out the devoted and delirious—a Florida "Holy Land" theme park (complete with crucifixion production number), a Holocaust-semi-denying rabbi, a Creationist "museum" whose dioramas show humans and dinosaurs living side-by-side—and brashly challenges people head-on to reconcile fundamental contradictions in traditional doctrine, or offer a shred of real evidence that key supernatural beliefs (the Virgin Birth, et al.) happened. Being of Catholic and Jewish parents himself, he doesn’t omit anyone from his withering scrutiny, though the big focus is on those Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots of our current global moment, Christianity and Islam.

is going to piss off a lot of people, including some diehard secular humanists. Ever the smart-mouthed comedian, Maher constantly interrupts his subjects, putting them on the defensive, never letting them articulate themselves at length. The editing also sometimes makes them look like dupes, while Charles’ frequently funny use of interpolated tacky religious instructional films, ridiculing on-screen text, and other devices hardly play fair. (Of course, how often does the Religious Right—any Religious Right—give opposing liberal voices equal debate time?)

The movie’s frequently hilarious yet ultimately dead-serious cry is for "Rational people [to] come out of the closet" lest people who "make a virtue out of not thinking, of [trusting in] fantasy and nonsense" bring about a "religion inspired nuclear disaster." Such global catastrophe might not be the desire of your average, peaceably faithful Ned Flanders or Apu Nahasapeemapetilon next door. But it doesn’t seem to bother much those many fanatics of several faiths, some owning heavy weaponry, who think apocalypse is nigh and a good thing too.

Whether you agree with Maher’s blunt proclamation that "Religion must die for mankind to live" or not—yep, he doesn’t allow much middle ground—the combined weight of historical evidence, current chaos and potential mushroom clouds does affirm that the man has a valid point.

Meanwhile there’s the rest of this year’s Mill Valley Fest, most of which is less incendiary, but still thought-provoking…and sometimes purely enjoyable.

Celebrity events include tributes to fabled scenarist (Taxi Driver) and director Paul Schrader; Harriet Andersson, one of the earliest of recently deceased Ingmar Bergman’s great screen women; and Alfre Woodard, that extraordinarily versatile (not to mention prolific) African American thespian currently on view in Desperate Housewives, Tyler Perry’s latest flick The Family That Preys, and indie drama American Violet. Which latter closes MVFF on Sunday Oct. 12, alongside highly praised Israeli border-crossing seriocomedy Lemon Tree.

Other highlights are too many to mention. But we’ll take a deep breath and try anyway. There is no other festival Bay Area-wide that approaches the internationalist programming adventure or local family-outreach of Mill Valley’s Children’s Filmfest sidebar, now in its 14th year. The week-daily 5@5 series offers terrific cocktail-hour pupu platters of the best in new shorts worldwide, at just $5 per program.

Perennial MVFF favorite Dorris Dörrie’s latest, Cherry Blossoms, is a lovely tale of mortality and renewal that spans German and Japanese cultures. Also coming with high recommendations are Swedish wilderness adventure Wolf; funny Chilean superhero tale Mirageman; Amerindie minimalist Kelly Reichart’s Michelle Williams-starring homeless drama Wendy and Lucy; Trainspotting auteur Danny Boyle’s wildly buzzed new Slumdog Millionaire; Italian heart-wrencher Quiet Chaos with Nanni Moretti of The Son’s Room; Bollywood spectacular Jodhaa Akbar; Tibetan monk-protestor documentary Fire Under the Snow; and US-Laos coproduction The Betrayal, a 23-years-in-the-making study of one high-drama life knocked about by disastrous American foreign policy.

As ever, MVFF 08 should offer plenty of wide-ranging, eye-opening material. (And no Mill Valley would be complete without the world premiere of a new Rob Nilsson feature, this time the improvisational, South Africa-set corporate comedy Frank Dead Souls.) Dive in.

But let’s also take a moment to mourn the abrupt cancer death of longtime festival publicist Pam Hamilton, a sparkling personality who represented numerous Marin cultural institutions for years. Her very recent passing robs the Bay Area of one of its signature professional arts advocates.