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Making us stronger

By GERALD PEARY  |  September 17, 2008

Funny! And speaking of chortles: there was the Bill Maher-starring RELIGULOUS, directed by Larry Charles, the helmer behind Seinfeld and Borat. This is the one where Maher traverses the world to make jest of the deeply religious: Jews, Christians, Moslems. Hallelujah! Religulous is manna to the 14 percent of Americans (count me among them!) who find belief in a holy spirit a superstition and an idiocy. In Religulous, Maher blasphemes without guilt and is happy to patronize those who profess the gospel. Bless him for his iconoclasm!

“I always say I’m a rationalist,” the ex-Catholic Maher explained at a Toronto press conference. “I don’t like the term ‘atheist,’ it’s too dogmatic. I’m saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know what’s out there.’ It gives you a headache to think about it, but I have a feeling it’s not a human god. Anyway, nobody has made a movie like this. Religion is the last taboo, the one topic that needs debunking.”

“We went as far as we could,” piped in Charles, a bearded, ZZ Top look-alike. “We wanted to destroy more than debunk.”

“We’re throwing rocks at a wall,” Maher conceded. “Religion is not going to come down, or go away like high-button shoes.”

A Canadian journalist asked, “Why is religion so important in the US?”

“Because we’re a dumber country than yours,” Maher answered. “Western Europe, where religious attendance is down, seems to be thriving. The US is more closely tied to countries like Iran and Turkey. That’s where we are philosophically.”

There was one more press conference at Toronto worth attending, just for the all-star participants. IT MIGHT GET LOUD, a documentary about rock-guitar maestros, brought Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White together in the movie and onto the Toronto stage. That’s a sight! Page wasn’t much of a speaker about doing the collaborative film: “It was very illuminating.” The Edge was polite: “I didn’t think we’d hit it off so easily; that was a real surprise, a real pleasure, and I learned about music I didn’t know, like Link Wray and the Ray Men.” But Jack White offered intimate anecdotes about growing up a rocker in Detroit, and he revealed cinema savvy about how a guitar propels the movie: “It’s sort of what Hitchcock would call a MacGuffin.”

What other movies really impressed at Toronto?

WALTZ WITH BASHIR, Ari Folman’s courageous, original animated feature from Israel, in which the filmmaker reveals his own shameful actions while a soldier in 1982 in Lebanon.

HUNGER, a first film from acclaimed British visual artist Steve McQueen. This is a disciplined, austere retelling of Bobby Sands’s fatal 1981 hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison, with Michael Fassbender brilliant as the martyred IRA leader.

MORE THAN A GAME, Kristopher Belman’s moving documentary about LeBron James and the “Fab Five,” the rowdy kids from out-of-it Akron who in 2003 led the St. Vincent–St. Mary High School basketball team to a state title and the #1 spot in USA Today’s national poll.

LES PLAGES D’AGNÈS, Agnes Varda’s touching, informally poetic glance back at her life as a filmmaker, and her marriage to the late Jacques Demy, with Varda offering both sadness and bemusement at age 80.

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