Religulous (poster)

Lionsgate

Bill Maher isn't monkeying around when it comes to politically incorrect humor, or his favorite subject—the Almighty.

His new documentary, Religulous, which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto Film Festival, is predictably making waves for its satirical musings on the world's three main religions.

And then there's the poster.

The one-sheet, which will adorn theaters outside the U.S., shows a trio of chimps dressed as a rabbi, the pope and an Islamic cleric.

"The three monkeys poster is for Canadian and international [markets] and it plays much better around the world than Bill Maher because he's much better known here in the states. It's got all the religions on it and it's not singling out one or the other," says a publicist for distributor Lionsgate, who did not wish to be identified. "You can't say they are discriminating. And it's familiar: 'Speak No Evil, See No Evil, Hear No Evil.' "

So far leaders of several religious advocacy groups haven't taken the bait.

"As far as the poster's concerned, it's fairly inocuous," says Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League. "The problem is not the poster. It's Bill Maher. He has said some of the most vile things. He can say all he wants about being ecumenical, but it's only one religion he really has it out for and it's the Catholic religion."

 "Religion is not immune to criticism or satire... but if you don't like it, don't go see it," adds Abraham Foxman, national director and chairman of the Anti-Defamation League.

"I think Muslims are becoming increasingly reluctant to being drawn into these self-seving publicity gambits," says  Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "We're not going to be goaded into jumping up and down…we're just going to ignore it."

Even if the posters were an attempt to ratchet up the controversy, the results have been me. A dozen or so  demonstrators turned up at Saturday's screening brandishing signs with slogans like "Hate + Fear = Religulous," "Don't Mock My Religion," and "Pray for Bill." But the protest was relatively quiet and, per Canadian tradition, polite.

"It wouldn't have been so lame if I had hired them," quipped Maher, when asked if filmmakers staged the protest following the film's screening (which earned a standing ovation).

Maher, a lapsed Catholic who regularly bashes religion on his HBO talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher, also told reporters that he believed religion "was the one topic that deserved the broader canvas...I just thought this is the one topic I feel strongly about and it's the one topic that no one has made a movie like this. It's the ultimate taboo. It's the last taboo. It needs debunking."

Directed by Borat helmer Larry Charles, Religulous finds Maher traveling to some of the world's holiest sites, including the Vatican and Jerusalem's Temple Mount, questioning true believers on their faith.

While his critics agree that Maher has the right to voice his opinion, some like Donahue, who has previously made headlines blasting such irreverent shows as South Park, simply take issue with how he goes about it.

"If he's going to be mean-spirited about it, that's the problem," Donahue says. "He has a right to put it out and I have a right to protest it. Certainly it will relieve some of my objections if he's not just simply taking aim at the Roman Catholic Church."

Hoping to defuse some of those concerns, the Lionsgate official noted that there have been no protests other than the small group outside Saturday's screening and the studio hasn't received any threats.

"I think people are accepting it in the spirit in which the film is done," says the rep, "and that's one of questioning and not being dogmatic."

"There's people writing on the Web ‘don't see this movie' and Bill Maher is Satan, but whether it takes to the streets kind of thing, I don't know," said Maher.

Religulous will play in theaters around the world, including the Middle East, with the current exception of Japan and Spain. It opens in the U.S. on Oct. 3.

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