[29 April 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Religion may be comedy’s last taboo. Over the last several decades, some films have tried to treat the Good Book as farce. But juvenile affairs like Wholly Moses (1980) and ...And God Spoke (1994) didn’t cause even the most passionate genuflector a moment’s worry. In 1979, Monty Python’s Life of Brian struck a chord with the devoted, and the condemnations came loud and strong. Though it actually had little to do with the Messiah or his wisdom, this liturgical laugh-fest from Britain’s rock stars of comedy was considered sacrilegious.
It’s sad to say it, but Life of Brian (currently re-released by Rainbow Film Company, to ride The Passion of the Christ‘s considerable coattails) might be more controversial today than it was in 1979. When it first opened, protesters treated Python’s Gospel gobbledygook much like Martin Scorsese’s blistering The Last Temptation of Christ. In Brian‘s case, the original financers backed out, and it took an influx of cash from the late George Harrison to keep the project afloat.
The more fundamental question, however, was why Monty Python (Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam), who spent their BBC/PBS series skewering British uptightness, take on the sacrosanct subject of the Savior? In fact, Brian does not lampoon Jesus Christ, his teachings or his importance as a religious icon. Indeed, it’s more a scathing satire on mob mentality, government bureaucracy, and cult ideology.
One might well remember the era in which it was conceived: the Reverend Jim Jones inspired his followers in Guyana to suicide during the year of the film’s production (1978). Patty Hearst’s kidnapping was still a hot story, as the former hostage of the Symbionese Liberation Army was serving jail time. Everywhere, the social activism of the ‘60s was fading into the hedonism of the ‘70s, informed by Watergate and the drug-fueled disco lifestyle. And so, Python endeavored to wake up the masses by making a movie depicting faith as a fool’s paradise.
It was Eric Idle who first threw out the idea of a religious epic. After the successful medieval spoof, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the troupe was looking for another genre to deconstruct. Someone suggested the old-fashioned Cecil B. DeMille Bible ballyhoo and Idle visualized a send-up of Christianity. With a working title, “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory,” the debaucherous brainstorming began. They came up with the story of Brian (played with grace and goofiness by Chapman), the reluctant prophet, a simple man constantly mistaken for the King of the Jews. From his birth in a manger right next door to Christ’s, to his unexplained rise as a spiritual emblem for the sheep-like folks of Judea, Brian remains an incorruptible innocent, even amid massive upheaval.
Life of Brian‘s cleverly crafted script stretches stupidity to its limits. And it’s become even more relevant, as events in the Middle East escalate. The film explores extremism, the Romans’ bullying set against the violent elements within the Jewish community. Brian’s odyssey has him falling into a political party (The People’s Front of Judea, not to be confused with the Judean People’s Front), dead set on freeing their homeland from the crucifying influence of Rome.
Of course, the movie takes time out from its philosophizing for classic Python skits, as when the stoning of a Jehovah-spouting heretic becomes a short sketch plot stop. And when Brian is given the task of graffito-tagging a government wall with the Latin phrase for “Romans Go Home!”, the lesson in the dead language by John Clesse’s cranky Centurion is another spoof of public education. Unlike Holy Grail‘s series of skits, or Meaning of Life (1983), a cradle to grave collection of vignettes, Life of Brian seems like a linear film, thanks mostly to Terry Jones’ delicious direction, expertly meshing cartoon lunacy with the history of the authentic locations.
At the same time, Brian’s coming of age, both physically and emotionally, is handled with skill and seriousness. And, of course, he pays the ultimate price, which makes Life of Brian less an allegory than a cautionary example. It argues that freedom of thought is rare and precious, not to be taken lightly. Toss in a little full frontal nudity, some frightfully funny foul language, and a barrage of non-PC speech impediments, and you’ve got one of the best comedies of the ‘70s.
There will be those who complain that any film taking potshots at the Prince of Peace has its priorities all wrong. But Life of Brian is anything but blasphemous. The only time Christ Himself is depicted in the film is during the Sermon on the Mount, and then it’s the audience who is the butt of the joke, as they misunderstand and misapply His poetic words. The movie treats the Son of God as an unfathomable good, while those who would follow Him are depicted as merely human by nature and design.
Brian asks us to consider our beliefs. Certainly, its cheeky jabs at organized religion enhance its mix of satire and insanity. But make no mistake: Life of Brian is no more comically derogatory to Christianity than Mel Gibson’s preachy Passion. This time around, Life of Brian might be seen for what it is: an icon of irreverent comic brilliance. The members of Python showed that any subject, taboo or not, could survive a sardonic tweaking, as long as it was done with intelligence and wit. Ironically, one of Brian’s most beautiful bad taste moments has become a special symbol. Eric Idle’s musical ode to optimism in the face of adversity, the crucifixion croon-along, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is a pop hit, football stadium chant, and Jack Nicholson’s theme in As Good As It Gets. It’s a sentiment that’s hard to resist.