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Pay attention to the punctuation of ‘Hail Satan?’

Documentary films cover all sorts of topics. But I can pretty much guarantee that you've never seen a documentary quite like "Hail Satan?" — a Magic Lantern special that proves that irony is far from dead. Following is a review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Symbols of the anti-Christ have been around pretty much as long as anything involving the Son of God himself. And, clearly, mainstream culture has always associated those symbols with evil.

Yet that’s exactly the point disputed by the documentary film, “Hail Satan?” – which has a prominent question mark at the end of its title.

Directed by Penny Lane, “Hail Satan?” focuses on a group called the Satanic Temple that wants to reclaim the identity of the anti-Christ in all its different guises, from snakes to red-faced, horned Lucifers. The group sees these guises less as religious icons and more as a symbol of rebellion and freethinking.

Of course, some people can’t, or refuse to, see the difference. One such person is the Arkansas legislator whom director Lane follows and who is insistent on placing a statue bearing the texts of the 10 Commandments on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capital.

It is this proposal, in fact, around which much of “Hail Satan?” revolves. The Satanic Temple resorts to a Constitutional argument to fight the proposed monument: Since the First Amendment ensures all Americans the right to worship as they wish, the group contends that if a symbol of Christianity can be erected on public grounds, then symbols of all religions should be represented.

In their case, to the horror of the Arkansas legislator’s followers, that symbol would be a near-9-feet-tall bronze statue of a goat-headed figure named Baphomet, flanked by two children.

While the Satanists are led by someone who could have come from a Hollywood casting studio – a guy operating under the pseudonym Lucien Greaves who has slick-back hair, a trimmed beard and most auspiciously a milky right eye – the group is serious in its intent, even if the methods it uses sometimes smack of theatrical absurdity.

Depending on your attitude toward religion, then, you may find much of “Hail Satan?” funny, despite the uncompromising intentions of its protagonists. That clash of the comic and the serious fits Lane’s style, she being the director also of the 2013 documentary “Our Nixon” that used home movies of former President Richard Nixon to give a surprisingly intimate portrait of that most complex – and, until recently, most divisive – of American politicians.

And, too, it’s not as if the Satanic Temple is without rancor within its own ranks. At least one group breaks away, wanting more direct – and possibly violent – action.

It’s ironic that Greaves and his followers – both national and international – advocate peaceful, if at times tasteless, action to achieve their ends. Irony, though, as well as being a traditional source of humor, can also help to underscore sincere aims.

When you cut through all the theatrics, the aim of the Satanic Temple is to remind us that the authors of the U.S. Constitution wanted a separation between church and state. As James Madison, fourth U.S. president and author of the Bill of Rights, once wrote, “religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” 

And Madison, it should be pointed out, wasn’t known for his comic stylings.