Hail Satan?

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/10/19 19:09:04

"Come for shenanigans, stay for principle (or vice versa)."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 21: The question mark in the title of "Hail Satan?" does not truly indicate any sort of uncertainty; it is never unclear what sort of conclusions director Penny Lane wants the audience to draw where the Satanic Temple is concerned. Instead, it serves as the same sort of rhetorical device as the Temple itself - a quick, visible way to at least attempt reorienting one's perspective on something that can easily be taken for granted because it's so entrenched. It's a successful gambit, a good initial indication of how good both the film and its subject are at getting attention and making a point.

That may not be the entire point of the Satanic Temple, but watching them poke at attempts to give Christianity a place in secular American society (or to maintain and expand that place) is certainly the part of the film that is the most immediately entertaining. Director Penny Lane opens with footage of one of the Temple's earliest bits of activism, in which an actor stood upon the steps of the Florida State House and praised the governor for his work to return prayer to school, because it would, necessarily, include all prayer. Though that demonstration is a bit of a rough draft - founder Lucien Greaves would soon decide to represent the organization personally, rather than hiring an actor in a costume,for instance - they set the tone for later confrontations involving prayers at city council meetings, and an ongoing project of hauling out a majestic statue of Baphomet whenever someone considers placing a Ten Commandments monument on public land.

These segments amuse - director Penny Lane could spin them off into entertaining short films or magazine segments - although they could become repetitive and hollow if the film were nothing but smart-asses snarkily trying to punch back at presumptive Christians (though that does tend to be a lot of fun). The trick, both for Greaves and Lane, is to make Satanism compelling as more than just an extreme satirical counter-example, and that is arguably where the pair, in their individual ways, do their strongest work: Casting Lucifer as the embodiment of rebellion against entrenched authority and listing the Temple's Seven Tenets creates just enough of the basis for a workable belief system that even skeptical viewers may find themselves nodding along, acknowledging that it makes a sort of sense.

(Or at least, it did at this particular festival; it will be interesting to see how a broader audience reacts if the film gets on their radar.)

Lane pulls the film together with assurance, tracking the growth of the organization without actually making its success a bigger story than its ideas, taking advantage of how the folks who are willing to go out in the world and declare themselves Satanists are fairly bold in one way to build out a cast of characters that keep the interview portions interesting. It also makes for a nice contrast between their public appearances/activism and their behind-the-scenes work on keeping the ship running, and it allows for some interesting material toward the end, when the leader of the Detroit chapter pushes her rhetoric further than the leadership council that has developed is comfortable with.

Greaves's acknowledgment that they have to set certain limits is one of the ways an interesting question surfaces: Just how much of this is actual religion or spirituality and how much is performance art, and which protections should apply as a result? Answering this question is in some way out of the film's scope - the focus is strongly on the what and how of what the Temple does, with Lane pointedly skipping over things like Greaves's background even when he acknowledges that he's created false names - but it's also one to which they are clearly opening a door, whether through having a member of the Temple talk about how being an atheist was boring and isolating or by including Greaves offhandedly dropping the phrase "non-theistic religion", which seems like it might requires a bit more effort than that to get some viewers to accept as an actual thing.

Perhaps getting the audience to wrestle with how much is earnest and how much is looking for loopholes is part of the film's goals, although that may be a generous reading considering how straightforward the film is in general. It's not an actual weakness given that the aim of the film is generally in line with the Temple's goals of highlighting hypocrisy in the treatment of religion and pushing back, which it does well enough to be quite informative and entertaining.

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