Louis Theroux’s Scientology Movie

John Dower (Director). (2016) My Scientology Movie. United Kingdom: BBC Films

My Scientology Movie is a decent enough documentary.

It does all the things you’d expect a Louis Theroux production to do, from using prolonged and awkward silences as a form of revelation to blurring the boundaries between discomfort and hilarity. And Theroux’s somewhat quirky approach to the topic at hand is revealing, to say the least.

Although ostensibly billed as an exposé of Scientology’s mysterious and allegedly megalomaniacal chief, David Miscavige, Theroux’s decision to put jobbing actors at the disposal of former church member Mark ‘”Marty” Rathbun pushes the film in an altogether more intriguing direction.

During the period 1990 to 2004, Rathbun served as the Inspector General of the Religious Technology Centre, an executive position second only to Miscavige himself. And as Rathbun methodically instructs his half-bemused, half-petrified troupe in the peculiar arcana of the creed he once espoused and enforced, it becomes increasingly clear that he is both the subject and object of Theroux’s fascination.

Rathbun’s disgust at the totalitarian edifice upon which Scientology rests is genuine; but at the same time, he is utterly oblivious to his own role in building and maintaining that very same edifice. When he looks in the mirror, he sees only a victim staring back, not the perpetrator that other less privileged members of the church might observe.

Rathbun, in other words, is missing half the pieces, and in the end, I can’t help but feel the same thing about this film.

On a basic level, Theroux and his team don’t quite seem to know what they want to say. Yes, they’ve produced a thought-provoking study on Scientologists and ex-Scientologists, but I’m not so sure that they’ve said anything particularly insightful or original about Scientology in the process.

Laymen are likely to leave the cinema with a sense of how Scientologists interact with the outside world, but there’s not enough nuts and bolts information to tell them what Scientologists believe about the world itself. In fact, I can almost hear the disembodied being of L. Ron Hubbard cursing Theroux for the scant screen time devoted to his ideas—though, to be fair, he does at least get a mention, which is more than can be said for Lord Xenu and his “DC-8-like” spacecraft.

Seasoned Scientology-watchers, meanwhile, will find little to satisfy their appetite for something new. Apart from a few scenes with Rathbun, there’s nothing that hasn’t been covered before.

All in all, then, My Scientology Movie is a solid addition to the burgeoning canon of Scientology documentaries. It takes subject matter with which many are already familiar and examines it through a uniquely Therouxian lens. In that sense, it’s a sort of cinematic digestif.

As for what the main course should be, there are several options out there, but if you really want to get to grips with Scientology as a belief system, social structure, and historical phenomenon, I’d recommend Alex Gibney’s 2015 documentary Going Clear.

Image by Nordiske Mediedager


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James A. Chisem is a freelance writer based in the UK. He writes about history, foreign policy, and football (or soccer, to some). His work has been published by International Policy Digest, e-International Relations, and Atlantic Bulletin. ...more →

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3 thoughts on “Louis Theroux’s Scientology Movie

  1. I don’t have a specific comment to make, other than this piece is really well-done. I haven’t seen the movie (and probably won’t), but I’m glad you were here to give it a review.

    Thanks for writing it.

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  2. “Laymen are likely to leave the cinema with a sense of how Scientologists interact with the outside world, but there’s not enough nuts and bolts information to tell them what Scientologists believe about the world itself.”

    That’s probably because, to the sort of people who watch this sort of film, what religious people of any stripe believe about the world is meaningless, mere superstitious garbage.

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