There’s no denying a Louis Theroux documentary draws a quite different crowd to the cinema. Those docuphiles who wouldn’t deign to visit the unwashed multiplexes during blockbuster season, some who came specifically to sneer at the bizarre tenets of Scientology itself and, I suspect, many like me who were drawn to the screening seduced by the possibility that this documentary was cinema-worthy because it contained some earth-shattering revelation hitherto undiscovered about the world’s most secretive ‘religion’. But were there any actual Scientologists in the screen, mingling undetected amongst us? Listening; judging; observing..?
My idle conspiracy theory musings gained early traction when the Live Stream malfunctioned as soon as the screen lit up. Okay, so I was watching it at Cineworld Whiteley, a venue notable for two things: one, there is absolutely zero mobile signal within the building itself (an architectural oversight retrospectively painted as a deliberate virtue) and two; in the eleven months since it opened, there’s never been a day when all of its systems and technology were fully functional. But those facts aside, was the outage actually a pre-emptive strike by an elite SeaOrg operative, hoping to disrupt the transmission of the movie and its accompanying Q&A. The answer was soon apparent: no. A simple ‘switch it off and on again’ sorted everything out. Stand down, IT Helpdesk – your work is done.
With little preamble and no adverts or trailers (Yay!), the presentation started. It was time to see the implacably ironic Louis Theroux take on the pathologically impassive behemoth of the Church Of Scientology!
Repeatedly denied his requests to make a documentary on Scientology from the inside, celebrated documentary maker Louis Theroux’s first theatrical feature sees him take on the subject in his own inimitable style. Taking inspiration from the Church’s own media productions, he seeks out former Scientologists turned whistle-blowers to aid him in casting actors to play Scientology’s major players, reasoning that if you can’t get inside to experience the church, the only way to understand it is to recreate it on the outside. One thing is undeniable, though: the young actor Louis casts (Andrew Perez) to play David Miscavige has a bright future ahead of him: he’s incredible.
Louis’ deadpan, poker-faced sense of humour prove to be well matched to the utterly un-self-aware reactions from the Church, leading to a number of surreal confrontations, almost tipping the movie into Inception territory as one documentary ends up housing another which in turn contains another documentary. In fact, replace cameras with handguns and there are some scenes which could be ripped straight from a Tarantino movie.
Despite these amusing (with a disquietingly sinister undertone) confrontations with fringe representatives from the church, the finished movie ends up, as many of Louis’ documentaries do, becoming more a portrait of Louis’ relationship with a specific individual, in this case Mark ‘Marty’ Rathburn. Curiously, and despite the constant bizarre behaviour of the Scientology flunkies which doggedly although gently harass Louis and his crew, it’s Marty and his possible complicity in the activities and organisation he now condemns that draws your focus, sympathy and suspicion. Despite his amiably Bill Murray-esque appearance, by the end of the movie he’s a deeply divisive figure, painting a vivid picture of his experiences of life under Miscavige but ferociously closing down any discussions of what he personally did for the Church before his abrupt fall from grace led him to quit.
“My Scientology Movie” is dryly witty and, despite its light tone, still disquieting glimpse at an organisation that seemingly begs to be described as a sinister cult. The Church itself still presents an irresistibly cinematic, compelling archetype: a secretive and powerful organisation under the iron grip of a mysterious totalitarian leader with an army of devoted acolytes who ruthlessly hunt down, harass and seek to destroy their enemies and defectors. It’s the stuff Bond films are made of. As Louis points out, there may be good people working hard to do good things within the strictures and structures of the church’s hierarchy but the organisation is so viciously defensive and so absurdly heavy handed in its public relations that it’s impossible to take it any other way. It’s hard to avoid the thought that the church – for whatever reasons – likes and maybe even covets its whacko reputation; a sort of corporate adoption of ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’.
Ultimately there’s nothing in this slightly disappointingly lightweight documentary that will really shift the needle of your own personal e-meter when it comes to Scientology itself. Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” remains the gold standard in taking the church to task. There’s a scene very early in the film where Louis is driving Marty Rathburn around and Marty asks if they’re filming some B-roll footage. As the end credits rolled, I felt like nearly all I’d watched was B-roll footage, the punches I’d hoped to see land pulled in favour of a gentle poke in the ribs and a Pythonesque ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ attitude.