Sunday, April 1, 2007

He's Not the Messiah

MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979)

He’s got a very good friend in Rome...
Michael Palin’s star turn as Pontius Pilate.

IN July 1977, Mary Whitehouse – the self-appointed guardian of national morals – won a blasphemy libel case against Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s The Love that Dares to Speak Its Name, a poem which detailed a Roman Centurion’s homo-erotic meditations towards the crucified Christ. This had a personal resonance within the Monty Python camp, as Graham Chapman had helped launch the publication; yet both parties could never have foreseen the deluge when their paths would meet under similar circumstances two years later. The foulest-spoken yet best humoured Biblical epic ever, LIFE OF BRIAN shows that any subject can survive a sardonic tweaking, as long as it is done with intelligence and wit. Religion may be comedy’s last taboo, but the film does not lampoon Jesus Christ, his teachings or his importance as an icon. Less an attack on the Bible itself, it's more a scathing satire on mob mentality, bureaucracy, and cult ideology.

LIFE OF BRIAN captures the period in Python’s life when the group were at their happiest and most creative. Under the firm helm of Terry Jones, the picture is much more structurally sound compared to the troupe’s first "proper" theatrical release, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1974), and is therefore less faithful to the stream of consciousness spirit of their television series. It isn't littered with Terry Gilliam animation, or plot line tangents, and therefore is a more serious attempt at linear comedy painted on a much broader canvas, with Gilliam’s inventive set design providing a constantly interesting backdrop. Brian Cohen (Chapman), the reluctant prophet, is 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 Judea, Brian remains an incorruptible innocent; he is bemused by his contrasting Roman/Jewish ties, confused in love, and foiled by the very spirit of individuality he advocates.

Always look on the bright side of life;
the scene that cemented LIFE OF BRIAN’s infamy.

When LIFE OF BRIAN premiered in New York, the opening salvo in what would become a heated and often surreal war of words came from Rabbi Abraham Hecht, who said that the release was "produced in Hell." Hecht’s genuine if misguided fear was that the film would weave a corrupting spell over the impressionable minds of young cinema-goers, leaving them with a contaminated view of religion. After the Rabbi’s denunciation, outraged religious leaders in America queued up to vent their spleen, from the Lutheran Council to the reactionary politics in the southern states of the Bible Belt. In Britain, the war against LIFE OF BRIAN was fought a little differently. The Nationwide Festival of Light - a watchdog association working in league with Whitehouse - lobbied the BBFC to refuse a certificate. When the film was passed, the Festival of Light, supported by the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility, began an insidious campaign, circulating anti-BRIAN literature and encouraging Christians to pray for the film’s downfall. When it opened across Britain, local authorities even exploited a loophole in the law through health regulations. Consequently, the film ended up being banned in Surrey, Swansea, Cornwall and East Devon (where councillors refused to even watch it, arguing that "you don’t have to see a pigsty to know that it stinks.")

Despite the uproar created on its initial release, the work is anything but blasphemous; on the contrary, it is a statement which reduces the religious beliefs of our society on the hearsay of people two thousand years ago, and argues that freedom of thought is rare and precious. Above all, LIFE OF BRIAN is very much Pro-Christ, but anti-Church, standing as a beacon for the right to criticise religion. Whether it’s Brian’s unwanted disciples arguing over whether to follow the shoe or the gourd he’s left behind as he runs away, or the anti-Roman factions who do more damage to each other than the Empire, the film stabs at the heart of comedy’s favourite target, conformity. What's endearing about the Pythons is their irreverence; LIFE OF BRIAN is so cheerfully inoffensive that it's blasphemous to take it seriously.