By Leah Greenblatt
April 18, 2019 at 11:42 AM EDT
Magnolia Pictures

Why end a rallying cry with a question mark? The devil is in the details, or at least in the punctuation of Hail Satan?, a movie that often seems to teeter on the line between doc- and mockumentary —  a sincere examination of a social and political movement delivered with just a soupçon of Christopher Guest.

If you’ve heard of the modern Satanic Temple, it’s probably because of several news-grabbing challenges the group has made over the past few years to the increased presence of Christian theocracy in America’s public spaces — stone replicas of the Ten Commandments planted outside state capitol buildings; anti-abortion activists waving bloody placards outside women’s health clinics; prayer installed in public schools. All these things they see as contra to the foundational ideals of a country that offers not just freedom of religion, but freedom from it.

The group has a lot on its side; the Constitution, for one. But as filmmaker Penny Lane shows (with, to her credit, pretty equal amounts of healthy skepticism and empathy), the Temple also tends to hurt its own cause by often wrapping its altruistic message in the most cartoonish trappings of Satanism: the pigs’ heads and pentagrams and black lace parasols that tend to make them look more like escapees from a Corpse Bride convention than serious social-justice warriors.

And it is justice — along with science, reason, and the right to reject the adjudicating of public life in the name of Jesus Christ — that genuinely seems to drive the Temple’s head, Lucien Greaves, who turns out to be an incredibly articulate and thoughtful spokesman for the cause. (Though he seems centrally cast for it, too, with his inky wardrobe and cloudy eye.)

It’s when he speaks, and when the movie turns to a stream of member testimonials, that the motivations of the group really start to coalesce. One man still burns from being told as a kid that Ghandi was going to hell simply because he wasn’t a Christian; another is stunned into action by the hypocrisy of Boston’s Catholic Church condemning the Temple as wild-eyed villains, when it’s their own organization that deliberately covered up years of systemic child abuse.

The film is funny, too, as when a bow-tied Arkansan who looks like Orville Redenbacher’s grandson happily recalls of his conversion, “I was, I guess you could say, a zesty little atheist.” And Lane has a real flair for nonverbal edits that still manage to say a lot.

Throughout, the Temple struggles not just to be taken seriously, but for something like tolerance, if not acceptance, and legal recourse. There are public enemies — particularly preacher turned Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert, who seems thrilled to be their fire-and-brimstone antagonist — and private infighting, too.

If Lane never quite answers the question of why the Temple needs to reclaim Satan, with all his black-horned, baby-eating pop-cultural baggage,  instead of planting its flag under another name, she does raise some hell — and a lot of great questions, too. B+

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