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'Hail Satan?' review: Taking on the Christian nation, the devil's way

'Hail Satan?' review: Taking on the Christian nation, the devil's way
Anti-Satanic Temple protesters in Little Rock, Ark., square up against their religious and ideological opposites at a religious freedom rally in the documentary "Hail Satan?" (Magnolia Pictures)

A demonic charmer of a documentary, director Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?” goes a long way toward explaining why the relatively young and impressively large entity known as the Satanic Temple has made headlines around the world, generating controversy and legal wrangles wherever it hangs its headwear.

Yes, the Satanic Temple’s theatrical element is flagrant. Much of the on-camera footage with Satanic Temple leaders takes care to frame and light its subjects in stark silhouette, so that their devilish horns take on a striking look.

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To be sure, for true believers in America as a Christian nation, both the movement and the documentary will likely prove offensive. Maybe it’ll be the nudity (many of the rituals and protests trade in exposed flesh). Then again, many will cry “Get thee behind me, ‘Hail Satan?’!” simply for the way it lays out its arguments and takes various representatives at face value. At one point the Satanic Temple co-founder and Chicago native who goes by the pseudonym Lucien Greaves reminds director Lane, who sits behind the camera: “We’re a secular nation. We’re supposed to be a democratic, pluralistic nation.” The Satanic Temple, he argues, is only trying to defend the assault on church/state separation in this country.

Greaves and others, including one key Satanic Temple figurehead who ends up getting kicked out, are neither vilified nor ennobled by director Lane, whose previous films include “Our Nixon.” Rather, we come to know these people through their words, and their deeds, many of them disarmingly sweet. As one regional TV newscast reporter, covering a Satanic Temple highway cleanup project, puts it in the movie: “They exist, they’re friendly — and they also hate litter!”

In Oklahoma, Arkansas and elsewhere, the Satanic Temple fought and continues to fight explicitly Christian monuments such as the Ten Commandments commemorative markers near state capitol buildings. Their solution, no less controversial (or permanent, as it turns out): erect a seven-foot granite representation of the goat-headed Baphomet and two devil-worshiping children, in the same area.

The Satanic Temple grows large and diverse enough in its ranks to accommodate more extreme cases such as the Detroit chapter head known as Jex Blackmore. She’s a true asset to “Hail Satan?” and ends up becoming a key part of the overall story. Elsewhere, the film drops in on Greaves at the temple’s home base in Salem, Mass., as Greaves struggles with financial pressures incurred by various legal challenges.

The musical score, and some of director Lane’s editing strategies, have a way of playing into the more comic aspects. Yet it’s not a mean-spirited affair. In fact, it’s a sly primer in homegrown grassroots activism.

Following the 7:20 p.m. Saturday May 4 screening of “Hail Satan?” at the Music Box Theatre, members of the Chicago chapter of the Satanic Temple will discuss the movie, and the organization’s mission, with the audience.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

“Hail Satan?” — 3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for graphic nudity, and some language)

Running time: 1:35

Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; musicboxtheatre.com

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