Hail Satan?

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The title is “Hail Satan?”—but with a question mark at the end and it may look like a mockumentary, but it’s not. It’s a fascinating documentary about ragtag political activists making serious mockery with lots of media savvy. It’s about jiu jitsu as performance art—turning an opponent’s outrage to one’s advantage; about deadpan as dramatic technique, and about the damnedest strategy you could imagine, summoning up Satan as a champion of religious freedom.

This new film by Penny Lane follows a group of provocateurs calling themselves The Satanic Temple. As trigger words go, “Satan” is irresistible. Protesters turn out on cue. TV crews flock to the scene like bears to a honeypot. The Satanists show up in black robes, with straight faces and Halloween horns on their heads. They’re not the most polished performers, but they know what they want, separation of church and state, and how to get it. In one case that’s revisited here, they demand the removal of a Ten Commandments monument at the Oklahoma statehouse, or, failing that, the installation of a statue of the winged and goat-headed Baphomet alongside it. Oklahoma’s Supreme Court rules the Ten Commandments monument unconstitutional, and it is duly removed, thus removing the Baphomet threat.

“Hail Satan?” is not what you’d call a painstaking documentary. Where does the group get the money to strike a Baphomet statue in expensive bronze, let alone to pay its legal bills? The film doesn’t bother to inquire. There’s little sense of the main players’ backgrounds. Lucien Greaves is an alias for Douglas Messner, someone claims, but Mr. Greaves says that’s not his real name either: “I have double-layered pseudonyms.”

There’s plenty of entertainment value, though. A black mass in Cambridge, Mass. is suddenly canceled when Harvard says no to the Satanic Temple using its campus, then just as suddenly revived when a Chinese restaurant with a comedy club upstairs agrees to host the event. It turns out that some Ten Commandments monuments date back to the 1950s, when Paramount Pictures built a number of them, then sent them around the country to publicize the Cecil B. DeMille epic of the same name.

Local TV news looks foolish, as it should, with its fondness for self- dramatizing screwballs, its appetite for context-free conflict. Gradually, though, the film turns serious. The Satanic Temple’s vocabulary may be outlandish, but its members keep stressing that their Satan stands for dissent, rather than evil, and their purpose becomes clear. They are puckish constitutionalists, insisting that this is a secular nation, not a Christian one, as more and more people claim, and that religious freedom is inextricably intertwined with religious pluralism. Bringing Baphomet into the fray isn’t diabolical. It’s meant to make a point by getting people’s goat.

I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.