'Religulous' finds following at film fest

Perhaps it’s geopolitical fatigue that has slowed the pace at the Toronto Film Festival.

With a mind-numbing array of earnest pics taking on everything from immigration to the wars on terror and Iraq, there’s clearly some wariness setting in on the part of buyers, the press and even stars here to promote.

One breakthrough was achieved by a pic seeking to find the funny among the otherwise furrowed brows.

“Religulous,” the Larry Charles-helmed Bill Maher doc that spoofs religious extremism across the world, drew a sellout crowd of 1,200 to a session in which 20 minutes of footage screened and the pair answered questions.

Pic, which Lionsgate will launch domestically around Easter, has almost sold in its last three remaining territories: Japan, Germany and Korea. IM Global, which is handling sales worldwide, expects those deals to be inked within the next day or so.

After a handful of small deals for pics over the first four days of the fest, no more major pacts had closed by Monday evening. There appeared to be no movement for the likes of “The Visitor,” George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead,” “In Bloom” and “Nothing Is Private.” Only “Battle in Seattle,” the Charlize Theron starrer directed by Stuart Townsend about the WTO riots in 1999, seemed to be closing in on a sale.

Offers from four companies were being weighed late Monday, with Endeavor expecting a verdict overnight or early Tuesday.

The red-carpet wattage also waned after the glittery weekend, though Keira Knightley’s turn highlighted Monday’s Gala for “Atonement.” That pic has led the pack of successful Toronto unspoolings, along with another fall Focus release, “Eastern Promises”; Fox Searchlight’s “Juno”; the Weinstein Co.’s “Boy A”; Paramount Vantage’s “Into the Wild”; and Sidney Kimmel’s “Lars and the Real Girl.”

Footage of “Religulous,” which amounted to an extended trailer, saw Maher poking fun at Christians, Jews and Muslims with equal dexterity. “God made homosexuals; man made Bibles,” quips Maher in one vignette musing on the major religions’ occasionally backward attitude toward sexuality. Other clips find Maher visiting the Vatican, Jerusalem and even a London underground underpass in search of the truth. Mostly, all he seems to find are punchlines.

Pic is virtually guaranteed to generate wells of ink when it finally bows. It’s been snapped up in all hot-button zones, with Falcon handling Arab-language territories and Forum the Israeli release. Charles described it as “pan-offensive.”

“People who say they’re religious say they’re humble, but they’re arrogant, because they say they have all the answers,” said Maher at the generally appreciative press confab.

“This isn’t a Michael Moore-style polemic,” said IM Global topper Stuart Ford. “The subject matter is very much of the moment. All the major religions take themselves too seriously. We’re saying it’s OK to laugh at yourself. Don’t take this stuff too seriously because it’s destroying the planet.”

The Charles and Maher double act added some much-needed laughs to a fest sked that has at times carried the world on its shoulders. Monday saw the preem of Anglo helmer Nick Broomfield’s Iraq docudrama “Road to Haditha,” another in the long line of issue-heavy pics currently making the Toronto, and world fest, rounds. Broomfield pic is a blow-by-blow re-creation of the events that led to a platoon of U.S. Marines killing 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha.

Pic’s bow, in close proximity to the press confab for Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” ensured that Iraq was never too far off the agenda. Ironically, the outspoken Sean Penn’s appearance in Toronto pertained to his largely well-received film “Into the Wild,” which explores more spiritual and natural themes, so his press conference contained no anti-Bush rants.

“This film was a chance to go beyond the headlines,” said “Haditha” producer Donall McCusker. “The war in Iraq is one of the most significant events in the world today. For us to be scared about talking about it and tackling it because it’s seen on the news everyday would be the wrong thing to do. I don’t think there are too many films about Iraq being made, although I accept there are a lot of Iraq films being made.”

The question of audience fatigue is rearing its head before any of these pix have actually bowed in theaters. “I think good films are good films and need to be judged on their own merits. I never try and guess what my audience’s reaction is going to be because it’s not my audience,” said Haggis on the prospect of U.S. auds staying away from the political subject matter of so many fall films. “I was stunned that people came to see ‘Crash.’ I thought it would be myself and my Mum and that’d be it.”

Away from the war, serious-minded pics exploring the lives of immigrants in the U.S., such as Alan Ball’s “Nothing Is Private” and Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor,” were eagerly anticipated prior to the fest but have failed to unleash the expected frenzy, at least as of Monday. Doc “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” drew praise from several buyers, but one asked the salient question, “Haven’t there already been enough films about this one subject?”

The filmmakers behind one Middle East pic received good news Monday: Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel,” bowing here in a Gala preem on Friday, was announced as Lebanon’s official entry into the foreign-language film Oscar race.

Pic avoids tackling political crisis in the country in favor of a warm comedy about five Lebanese women working in a Beirut beauty salon.

“Caramel,” which opened in both France and Lebanon in August, is already on course to become top-grossing Lebanese pic of all time in both territories.

“I never thought about writing a film about war,” said Labaki. “I wanted to talk about normal life, normal people and normal emotions. I wanted to create a world that has nothing to do with war, because this is the way I see my country, and this is the way I want it to be.”

(Sharon Swart and Anne Thompson contributed to this report.)

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