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Devil's Advocates

Sundance Institute

Realm of Satan (2024)

Cheerful locals and neighbors, if not yours then somebody's, go about their normal domestic lives in Scott Cummings's nonnarrative Sundance-premiering documentary "Realm of Satan." They clean their nice black Maseratis; they hang the laundry on the line; they empty the dishwasher. They engage in mildly fetishistic sex and cavort a little in the woods around Poughkeepsie, N.Y., although some of these good folk are comfortably middle-aged and the level of cavort might be limited by wear to the knees. They live in well appointed houses full of terrific heavy drapes and esoteric knick-knacks and the odd goat or raven allowed indoors, plus several portraits of Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan to which they all belong. They are living their best lives, as should we all.

It's not really news any more that the organization called the Church of Satan does not worship a supernatural lord of evil. Members, including current high priest Peter Gilmore who features in the documentary, interpret the S-word in philosophical terms, as a credo of nonconformity, individuality. Some neighbors may find the disavowal of Lucifer unconvincing: among the loosely spun threads of this film is one in which a property of the Church apparently burns down, perhaps through arson. The Church's appeal for information offers a reward of, inevitably, $6,666. Until the camera starts moving near the end, Mr. Cummings likes a solid single-shot proscenium presentation, with individuals facing the camera while they perform stage magic, or tune in to Joe Netherworld's daily tarot reading, or tend to the goats. The audio is full of ambient noises, the sounds of the Earth; but also the throaty roar of that Maserati, or a motorbike. Since some filmic connections are too sweet to ignore, every time the documentary looks at a black leather motorcyclist or the bike they rode in on you think of the bikers in films by Kenneth Anger, whose relationship with Lucifer was direct.

You can find some of Mr. Anger in this film in general, since a sense of humor creeps in around the edges. Without warning the Maserati leaves animated fire tracks in its wake like Marty McFly's DeLorean, while a man pottering about in his kitchen turns out to have the legs of a goat. Satan here is both the ultimate cosmic rebel but also a bit of a joker, a metaphor for not bowing down to authority and protecting personal freedoms. After a Church member in a wheelchair hauls himself into bed his astral body ascends, free from the restraints imposed by his own corporeal form, the ultimate rebellion against the cards dealt by fate. Interpreting this credo personally rather than politically lets the documentary avoid saying the word libertarian or dropping the name of Ayn Rand like Mr. LaVey himself did, although the labels hang in the air anyway. "Let reason rule the Earth," ends one group invocation. All assistance to that end might be worth considering at this point.


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