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Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch about the Gay Communist Gun Club? The gag: how unlikely it was that any person could have all the criteria to join a shoot-and-hunt group for homosexual Marxists. Substitute "Gay Muslim Liberal Theologian" and you have Muhsin Hendricks, a central figure in the documentary A Jihad for Love. The South African is a high-profile maverick imam, an un-closeted homosexual (with two children from a marriage he had hoped would "cure" him) urging acceptance of gays and lesbians in Islam. He strives to mentor Capetown-area believers tormented by the gender confusion that is harshly forbidden by Sharia religious law. The Koran's condemnation of homosexuality is implied by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a parable Hendricks parses painfully to be more against rape and molestation than being queer. Well, he does do a good job justifying the title of this documentary, which sounds like a really crummy National Lampoon bit.

Loosely plotted, A Jihad for Love moves from Hendricks to surveys of gay males and lesbians living (mostly closeted) in Islamic enclaves around the world, in Morocco, Paris, Iran and India. This is not the first nonfiction feature on the topic; John Scagliotti's Dangerous Living, from 2003, gave more historical background, with the assertion, only marginal here, that, in its first millennium, Islam tolerated same-sex relations just fine. Only with the modern-era emergence of the fanatical ayatollahs and Taliban-style militants (may as well throw Christian fundamentalism in there as well) has there been mosque worshippers clamoring for people like Hendricks to "be thrown off a mountain or burned or something." Go to Dangerous Living for detailed background on the "Cairo 52" incident, in the 9/11 year of 2001, in which a Nile "queen boat," long given a winking pass by Egyptian authorities over its gay-tranny parties, was raided by secular police as a sop to the powerful mullahs. Passengers went on humiliating public trial in a huge cage, and A Jihad for Love follows up with Mazen, one of the Cairo 52, who served a year in prison (where he was raped, naturally and ironically enough). Mazen here goes to France for a tete-a-tete with lesbians Sana and Maryam. Muslim taboos against lesbians, we're told, are far less dire than those about male sodomy, but in one of those world-turned-upside-down moments this documentary delivers, Maryam says she finds wearing a hijab liberating; due to her Sapphic nature, she has no intention of looking attractive to men.

Many of the interviewees have their faces digitally fuzzed out. It's rather astounding how closely this imagery recalls the way representational Islamic art customarily obscures the face of the Prophet Muhammed, who cannot be depicted. There is also strikingly ecumenical resemblance to Trembling Before G_d, the acclaimed documentary about gays and lesbians in ultra-Orthodox Judaism - not to mention a small-but-growing congregation of films about gays defending their existence within Christianity. You may or may not buy into the rationalizations, but it's impossible not to be touched by the common factor: All the people here are serious about the faith that seems to reject them, unwilling to abandon Allah for atheism. This feature is, in fact, billed as "a Halal Production." - Charles Cassady Jr.

A JIHAD FOR LOVE

Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall At 3 p.m. Saturday, October 4 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 8

Appaloosa

A decent enough western in the old-school tradition, Appaloosa reunites Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen for the first time since David Cronenberg's A History of Violence three years ago. This time, Harris and Mortensen play hired Wild West lawmen instead of mobster adversaries. Their relaxed, easygoing camaraderie is the best thing about Appaloosa, giving it the timeless quality of a vintage buddy movie, like Newman and Redford's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is less a revisionist western than a pastiche of tried-and-true genre classics (Rio Bravo, High Noon, you name it). When Virgil (Harris) and Everett (Mortensen) ride into Appaloosa, it's only a matter of time before they butt heads - and exchange bullets - with local bad guy Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons in a neat switch from his usual Brit aristocrat roles) and his gang of scruffy varmints.

Throwing a temporary monkey wrench into Everett and Virgil's male bonding is another recent Appaloosa arrival, widowed coquette Allison (Renee Zellweger). The vixenish Allison likes playing both sides of the fence, and she soon has these two hombres eating out of her dainty little hands. But courting takes a back seat to score-settling ("feelings get you killed," Virgil opines about the fair sex), and a "where-did-that-come-from?" revelation about Allison's hidden agenda seems to have moseyed on in from another film. In his first stint behind the camera since 2000's Pollock, Harris does better work with his fellow actors than he does as a visual stylist. At times, Appaloosa looks downright boxy and drab. Inexplicably, Harris never takes full advantage of the spectacular New Mexico locations. And the action sequences - mostly of the guns-a-blazing shoot-out variety, natch - are less dynamic than you might expect for such a tradition-minded oater. Last year's 3:10 to Yuma remake remains the more satisfyingly retrograde cowboy flick. Yet the dialogue here is consistently sharp - much of it lifted directly from Parker's book - and the performances are everything you'd expect from such a splendid cast. - Milan Paurich Opens Friday areawide

Blindness

Portuguese author José Saramago was reluctant to grant film rights to his 1995 novel about an epidemic of "white blindness" that strikes citizens of an unnamed country. Saramago worried about how the novel's violence, rape and degradation would be treated by the wrong filmmaker. The well-regarded Brazilian director Fernando Meiralles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) won the rights, on the condition that he set the film in an unrecognizable city (it was filmed primarily in S-o Paolo). Some of the author's fears, alas, were justified: Meiralles' film is a technically accomplished but often excruciating experience. Meiralles and screenwriter Don McKellar changed the setting from the 1930s or '40s to a contemporary period but retained its cast of allegorically named characters: Doctor (Mark Ruffalo), Doctor's Wife (Julianne Moore, who is excellent), Man With Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover), Bartender/King of Ward 3 (Gael Garc’a Bernal), Woman With Dark Glasses (Alice Braga). The first section, in which the mysterious malady strikes First Blind Man (Yusuke Iseya) while he's driving, is the most compelling; we sympathize with the man's panic and are shocked when he is robbed by Thief (screenwriter McKellar), who has offered to help him.

Meiralles' virtuosity is abundantly on display during this first part, with brilliant mirror-image compositions and other stylish touches. First Blind Man seeks the help of Doctor, an ophthalmologist, who is stumped but soon succumbs to the blindness, a highly contagious condition. Doctor and other newly blind people are ordered into a quarantine camp; Doctor's Wife, who still has her sight, accompanies her husband into the dismal facility, where concentration-camp cruelty, filth, chaos and moral degradation reign. The setting resembles a Hieronymous Bosch painting of hell rendered photographically. Meiralles has taken a fantastical story and rendered it in a gritty, realistic style, and the result is often unbearable. A lengthy scene of sexual violence, trimmed by the director after test-audience members walked out, is still a torment to watch. The movie's final section shows the liberated victims making their way through the devastated city, but the movie (unlike the book, perhaps) never makes clear what the blindness is meant to symbolize or what the parable means, aside from the inhumanity of man toward his fellows. In the end, the characters' suffering (and by extension the audience's) feels unjustified and unredeemed. - Pamela Zoslov Opens Friday areawide

Flash of Genius

Not sure what would compel someone to want to make a movie about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Sure, he came up with the idea, and then big automakers stole it from him. And yes, he took them on against all the odds and had to defend himself in court because no lawyer in his right mind would take the job, once they realized he wasn't looking for a settlement as much as he wanted an admission of guilt. But, c'mon, we're talking about a windshield wiper. That said, Greg Kinnear is quite excellent as Robert Kearns, a university professor who has a "flash of genius" and realizes an intermittent wiper might do a better job of increasing visibility in the absence of something short of a downpour.

Robert and his six kids tinker in the basement for a bit before devising something that works, and they first take it to a manufacturer named Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) who knows how to handle the greedy guys in Detroit. He gets Robert a deal and goes about securing the proper patents. But when the automakers decide to pass on the project after Robert has invested his own hard-earned money in securing a manufacturer, he becomes obsessed with proving the invention was his. He becomes so preoccupied, he loses his job and his wife, and eventually lands in a mental hospital, where he realizes he must put everything in its proper prospective. But he never gives up his desire to prove his case and eventually enlists the help of his kids and takes it to court. There's inherent drama in the film's David vs. Goliath storyline, and the film does a reasonable job of recreating the look of the '60s, but the two-hour movie probably goes on for about 20 minutes too long - again, this is a windshield wiper we're talking about. - Jeff Niesel Opens Friday areawide

Religulous

If satire is what closes on Saturday night, does that mean that Larry Charles and Bill Maher's scattershot satirical documentary Religulous will throw in the towel after its first Saturday matinee? While too hit-and-miss to be considered a success, I sincerely hope that Religulous (the title means just what you think it does) sticks around a lot longer than that. At a time when hockey mama Sarah Palin is hogging the spotlight, a thoughtful, and sometimes laugh-out-loud movie that dares to take gleeful potshots at organized religion is to be cherished. I only wish that Religulous wasn't so meandering and - at 103, stuffed-to-the-gills minutes - overlong. With some judicious editing it could have made a killer HBO special. Equally provocative are some of the unscripted interviews conducted during the Religulous global road trip (including a truck driver who insists that the Shroud of Turin offers "indisputable truth" of Jesus' existence). I particularly enjoyed Maher's sojourn to Orlando's Holy Land Experience, with its every-hour-on-the-hour simulated crucifixions and Jesus-flogging. But dragging in Mormons and Scientologists who "up the ante in religious craziness" feels gratuitous. (Hell, even the evangelicals think they're nuts.) Instead, I would have rather learned more about the two - count 'em! - gay Muslim activists Maher encounters on his incredulous journey of skepticism. All caveats aside, Religulous is a movie that every thinking American should see and, hopefully, argue about. Since Republicans will surely condemn it for being a poisonous seed of the insidious liberal media, that's reason enough to buy a ticket. - Milan Paurich Opens Friday areawide

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