Hail Satan?

Hail Satan? is one of the most unusual political documentaries you will ever see. It's also one of the most astute and one of the funniest. Go figure. The film is about the efforts of the Satanic Temple to oppose the blending of church and state through a series of public actions. These folks are here to rankle, but not without reason. Through satiric methods, they fight for something they genuinely believe in.

The group operates under the guidance of leader “Lucien Greaves,” a man whose intelligence matches his sly sense of humor. Over the course of 95 brisk minutes, we see numerous examples of how the Satanic Temple works to organize its protests. Of particular objection to them is the placement of Ten Commandments monuments in front of government buildings. Arguing for true religious freedom, they file petitions to get a statue representing their own religion – a massive half-human/half-goat figure called Baphomet – placed right next to the Christian monuments.

Similarly, when they find out that the Phoenix city council is having a Christian prayer at the start of public meetings, they show up insisting that their religion should be allowed to offer a prayer, too. The hilarity in Hail Satan? comes from watching the responses of aghast officials to these stunts. They don't know what to make of it; they just know that they're completely freaked out.

Whatever your immediate impressions are of the Satanic Temple, throw them away. The group is not what you expect. For starters, they don't believe in a literal devil. Satanism is, more or less, a way to shock people into paying attention to the message. The Temple also operates according to seven tenets, the first of which is “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.” They perform acts of charity, from adopting a stretch of highway for trash removal to running a program called “Menstruation for Satan” that provides feminine hygiene products to women in shelters.

Most notably, the Temple isn't really against Christians, it's just opposed to church and state being combined. The members resent the efforts of Christian legislators to impose their views on the public at large – something America's constitution is intended to prevent.

Directed by Penny Lane, Hail Satan? asks viewers to consider what the term “religious freedom” really means in America. Generally it has been a rallying cry for Evangelicals, who want government and businesses to bend to their beliefs. Of course, there are many religions, and the Temple's argument is that if one religion can do something, all the others should be allowed to do likewise. It's the absurdity of their proposals that makes them so effective. When officials realize they might actually have to put a Baphomet statue in front of a building, it quickly makes them realize how unpleasant it is to have someone else's views forced upon you. No matter where you stand on the issue before seeing this documentary, you'll do a lot of thinking afterward.

The Satanic Temple now has chapters all over the United States and around the world. A number of its members are interviewed in Hail Satan? They are uniformly intelligent and passionate about the group's mission. Aside from Greaves, the most fascinating figure is Jex Blackmore, a young woman whose desire to push the boundaries of the Temple eventually puts her at odds with its leadership. Most of what Greaves organizes has a tongue-in-cheek quality. Blackmore, on the other hand, takes a hardcore approach to the “satanist” label. Their conflict provides the film with some late-game drama.

Hail Satan? works so well because it takes you deep inside this unusual band of political agitators. You'll like these people, even if you would never align yourself with “Satan.” They're patriots. They believe in kindness, compassion, and fairness. They want the values upon which America was founded – the ones it was really founded upon, not the ones some religious circles want to falsely claim it was founded upon – to be upheld.

Buckle up for a surprising and thought-provoking movie experience you won't soon forget.

out of four

Hail Satan? is rated R for graphic nudity, and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.