Let’s get a few things out of the way about The Satanic Temple, the religious/activist group at the center of the excellent documentary “Hail Satan,” which rapturously premiered Friday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival.
First: Members of The Satanic Temple say they don’t actually worship Satan, or even believe in him. They want nothing to do with the murders and child abuse attributed to Satanism during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Their only human sacrifices are tremendous sacrifices of their own time, in the name of the humanity.
They revel in shock value — their headquarters is a black house in Salem, Mass., home of the witch trials, and may be best known for a legal fight with Netflix’s “The Chilling Adventure of Sabrina.” But their core belief — that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion — isn’t some kooky commandment they invented during a Black Mass. It’s the first line of the First Amendment.
Church co-founder Lucien Greaves (not his real name) is the focus of the film by avowed atheist director Penny Lane (which is her real name). Satanism could have no better spokesman than Greaves: He’s a sharp dresser who looks a bit like a lost Skarsgård sibling, except for a pale right eye that wanders a bit due to an injury he doesn’t like to discuss.
He’s eminently watchable even before he delivers charming and articulate defenses of Satanism — or at least, Satanism as he’s co-opted it, in the name of righteousness.
The group’s modus operandi is to present Satanism as a religion that deserves equal time with Christianity, in order to call attention to the un-Constitutionality of Christianity in public spaces. They never win their fights to erect Satanic statues alongside displays of the Ten Commandments outside Bible Belt state buildings. But that’s never the real goal: The real goal is to help good citizens realize that the Ten Commandments have no business on government grounds, either.
“Hail Satan?” (the question mark, Lane explained at a Q&A after the premiere, is meant as something of an olive branch to non-Satanists) is much funnier and more inspiring than you might expect a film called “Hail Satan?” to be.
The film is about inclusion, and plurality. Yes, they make fun of Christian symbols to get attention. But at least for the people profiled in the film, it seems without malice — they say what they really want is to start a conversation.
We meet an “Ocean’s 11” worthy assemblage of activists within the Temple, or TST, as some call it. They include former Christians and a Muslim, and others who resent oppression in the name of Jesus — including trans members who resent religious arguments intruding on where they can go to the bathroom.
In the best tradition of American activism, they use protest and a touch of theatricality to call attention to American hypocrisy, and force America to live up to its own standards. If you like how Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters bait his targets into telling on themselves, you’ll probably love this movie.
Miraculously, “Hail Satan?” doesn’t preach to the (Satanic) choir by portraying Christians as ignorant cartoon characters. We see people speaking passionately and sincerely about their Christian beliefs. The film shows, without saying it outright, that organized religion isn’t the enemy. The group’s enemy is government endorsement of any religion over any other.
At the point when it feels like maybe the documentary has made this point enough — that it’s maybe getting fanatical in its lack of fanaticism — Lane introduces a fascinating subplot involving the compelling leader of the Temple’s Detroit chapter, a woman who uses TST to challenge religious arguments against womens’ reproductive rights.
Friday’s premiere earned two applause breaks, including one when a Temple member offered a succinct summary of the Catholic Church’s failings to prevent the kind of sexual abuse it has accused unnamed Satanists of propagating.
Prepare for shocks, but also to think. The question mark in the title isn’t an invitation to worship a red demon with horns, but to engage other humans.