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The Life of Brian - The Immaculate Edition

Reviewed by Ursus

The world's "best loved - and only - biblical comedy." Or a "blasphemous incitement to violence." It all depends on which side of the theological fence you find yourself sitting. The Life of Brian is not exactly on the same level of Romanophilia films as Ben-Hur or Spartacus. But it is, simply, hilarious. Monty Python takes an irreverent look at a time in Roman Judea when everyone was looking for deliverance from Messiahs.

Brian Cohen is a young Jew. Brian's mother seems to be in the world's oldest business, and Brian is the result of a tryst between her and a Roman client, making him half Roman. But he cares little for either his Roman or Jewish heritage, and merely wishes to indulge his teenage hormones. Nonetheless there develops around him a fanatical following of clueless people who proclaim him the chosen one. He becomes enmeshed in the struggles of talkative left-wing groups fighting for the rights of workers, the oppressed and the sexually confused. They run afoul of the less than competent Roman provincial government. In the end, Brian and other troublemakers are crucified by the Romans in a cheery scene ending in song ("Look on the bright side of life!" Brian is encouraged as he hangs from the cross).

There are some great scenes for Romanophiles. A group of left-wing Jewish intellectuals are forced to conclude that Roman imperialism engenders certain benefits. Brian Cohen learns firsthand from a centurion how to properly decline Latin. Pontius Pilate suffers from a speech impediment that detracts from the majesty one expects of a Roman procurator; his friends Biggus Dickus and Incontinenta Buttocks do nothing to add to Pilate's public image. John Cleese plays a centurion whose crack team of Roman guards can search rebel quarters with phenomenal speed.

But the focus is on the religious element. The Nativity is satirized. So is the Sermon on the Mount; those in the back cannot fully hear, and receive such wisdom as "blessed are the cheesemakers!" A Jewish priest's attempts at stoning a blasphemer goes horribly awry. Brian inadvertently performs miracles and prophecies for a credulous crowd, but at the same a group of cynical Jewish peasants heckle his attempt to teach parables. Then finally there is the aforementioned Crucifixion scene, an ending note of cheerful humanist defiance by singing in the face of death and oppression.

The immaculate edition of the DVD gives the background to the making and reception of the movie, which is itself an epic of Biblical dimensions. Inspired by the success of Holy Grail, or perhaps just sloshed by too many beers from a holiday in Amsterdam, Monty Python decided to make another cinematic epic. But there are few things that are larger than Arthurian legend, which they had already satirized. There was nothing left to do but tackle Christianity.

All members of Monty Python were products of 1940's British educational system, heavily influenced by the Church of England. They were indoctrinated in religion, but later in life rejected it. John Cleese explains he was forced to memorize much, but without any deeper meaning explained to him. When the angelic golden halo failed to descend upon him as expected, he developed atheistic doubts. Monty Python as a group could not agree on what religion is, but they could agree on what religion was not - and thus the focus of the movie.

They do not seek to attack the Gospels and the words of Christ, which they find congenial. Rather they attack the misinterpretations of Christ's words by his followers, and the violence and oppression that resulted. They also just wanted to produce a biblical movie where the actors talk in a normal voice, rather than the overblown and pretentious tone indicative of the genre.

Unfortunately for the Pythons, the British government took religion very seriously. Blasphemy laws were on the books. Shortly before the movie was made, a gay rights magazine was successfully prosecuted for a homoerotic interpretation of the the Crucifixion. The British courts defined blasphemy as "irreverence, scurrility, profanity, vilification, or licentious abuse" of the Christian religion - but those traits were all hallmarks of Monty Python humor.

The company originally intended to produce the film, EMI, canceled funding after its chairmen read the script ("I am not going to have people say I am making fun of Jesus Fucking Christ", he was reputed to have said). But former Beatles star George Harrison was a long time Python fan. He personally financed the production to the tune of 4 million dollars.

The movie opened in 1979 in America, where no blasphemy laws existed. It became an instant success, but not without controversy. A coalition of Catholics, Protestants and Jews protested the movie for perceived offenses. Some Bible Belt states prohibited the screening of the film. Later in Britain it somehow passed the national censors and was cleared for everyone over the age of fourteen. However, local councils could ban screenings of the movie within their jurisdiction, and many did. Foreign countries such as South Africa and Norway also banned it.

Over 25 years later, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ treated audiences to a more serious depiction of the Christian story. Monty Python felt it was time to re-release their epic as a significant counterpoint to Gibson's gruesome interpretation. To paraphrase Eric Idle, Gibson could do blood and gore well, but his version regrettably lacked any song and dance.

The joy of Brian is that it attacks everyone - Roman officials, Jewish fanaticism, pretentious left wing intellectual circles, the overly religious and gullible in general. It is not exclusively an anti-Christian film. The Pythons are not afraid to offend anyone with their humor; no one has a right to never be offended, political correctness be damned! This includes, as John Cleese muses, an Islamic world that is increasingly militant in taking exception to Western values.

There are those whose faith seemingly admits no humor. One wonders if that is a source of strength in their faith, or of weakness. But the other side of the coin is that many critics of organized religion are themselves devoid of laughter and whimsy, every bit the humorless ciphers as the fundamentalists they claim to oppose. Blasphemy may be a serious offense, but it does not have to be a serious endeavor. If there is any group in the world that appreciates the point, it would be Monty Python.

Blessed are the cheesemakers indeed

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The Life of Brian - Related Topic: Pontius Pilate and Jesus


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