French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet happened to be shooting a documentary about New York firefighters that became “9/11,” the riveting, landmark CBS production. One suspects a considerably smaller audience will tune in for “In God’s Name,” another doc for the Eye network most notable for its lack of pyrotechnics, daring, rather, to explore religion through interviews with 12 leaders of different persuasions. Given how fastidiously the major networks avoid serious primetime news and questions of faith, it’s a laudable and substantial project, even if the actual viewing feels like its own kind of pilgrimage.
Traveling the world, the filmmakers (who put themselves into the narrative) pick up in a sense where CNN’s “God’s Warriors” left off — only here, it’s more about finding the commonality of different religions than what motivates those whose faith leads them into extremism.
The leaders featured — Pope Benedict XVI and the Dalai Lama, grand ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and Hindu leader Amma, chief rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger and Michihisa Kitashirakawa, high priest of the Shinto Grand Ise Shrine, etc. — weigh in from different perspectives on the great riddles: What happens after death, the meaning of life, the fundamentals of their faith.
They also discuss religion in the context of intolerance, terrorism and violence, with most echoing the pope — that religions “can never become vehicles of hatred” — which is surely welcome but does little to address the many conspicuous horrors perpetrated in its name.
Beyond the philosophical issues, it’s fascinating how even through the veil of translation the leaders exude their own kind of charisma — from the Dalai Lama’s playful smile to the archbishop of Canterbury’s soothing meditations on morality. It’s a reminder, however subtly, that these religions are large institutions and certain qualities are required to ascend within them.
CBS isn’t exactly showcasing “In God’s Name” by slipping it in right before Christmas, and given that I nearly nodded off halfway through the screener, it’s hard to second-guess what would appear to be a conservative appraisal of its potential. Nevertheless, the news division deserves praise for tackling a big idea that goes beyond the usual missing-woman mystery, and if that means scheduling these two hours to minimize the impact of a ratings stumble, well, you have to walk occasionally before you can run.