‘Hail Satan?’: Pitchforks, black clothes and good deeds

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Before watching “Hail Satan?,” you might be surprised to learn that a group of self-described Satanists adopted a stretch of highway in Arizona and picked up litter with pitchforks. Or that others have collected socks for the needy. Or that their ranks — minions? — include not only disaffected rebels clad in black, but also a bowtie-wearing dork who looks like he could be Bill Nye’s understudy.

Is such affability part of a sinister plot? It doesn’t seem that way. One point made in this wry and illuminating documentary from Penny Lane is that the group that calls itself the Satanic Temple is not composed of devil worshippers. It’s probably not even a religion, at least in the theistic sense. Its adherents have rallied around seven tenets that sound — well, pretty nice. These include striving “to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures” and promoting beliefs that conform to a “scientific understanding of the world.”

As Scandinavian academic Jesper Aagaard Petersen explains in the film, Satanists were trolls before the contemporary sense of that word existed. The Satanic Temple, founded in 2013, is basically the Yes Men with an ethos, using humor and outrageous behavior to call attention to hypocrisy, particularly when it comes to incursions of religion into the public sphere.

After all, if the Ten Commandments are an acceptable display at the state Capitol in Arkansas, then shouldn’t an 8-foot statue of goat-headed deity Baphomet get equal play? The scene in which Lucien Greaves, the Satanic Temple’s co-founder, brings the design for that monument to a planning commission and soberly recites its dimensions (“the widest point is at the tips of the wings”) could make professional lampooners like Armando Iannucci and Christopher Guest jealous.

To some extent, Lane has taken on a gimme of a subject. The group’s public stunts have resulted in ample media coverage, and Lane deftly interweaves some of the funniest clips, like one of Greaves dryly resisting the questions of an incredulous-sounding Megyn Kelly. She also finds ways to lighten traditional documentary techniques. (An anonymous interviewee in silhouette wears giant ears and devil horns.)

But Lane, a connoisseur of stranger-than-fiction weirdness (“Nuts!”) and found surreality (archival documentary “Our Nixon” edited together amateur movies shot by associates of the president), takes the Satanic Temple seriously. She delves into the history of American religion in the 20th century (the proliferation of Ten Commandments monuments apparently came courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille) and the legacy of Satanic panics of the 1980s and ’90s, when many of the featured interviewees — including Greaves — were growing up.

And as much as the temple’s rallies can be amusing, Lane clearly sees its members as earnest advocates for tolerance, progress and individual freedoms — and the group as just an ordinary emerging organization with growing pains. As the excommunicated head of Detroit’s chapter says toward the end, “It does feel a little bit satisfying to be fired from the Satanic Temple for being too extreme.”

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