Life of Brian

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Film Poster of the 1979 release

Life of Brian (1979) was a film made by the Monty Python team, potentially blasphemously[1][2] spoofing religious faith and devotion. Following the success of their 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail the Pythons sought another "epic" theme to cover. The working title for their chosen project was Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory. This subsequently evolved into Life of Brian. According to the Pythons the more they researched Jesus looking for things he said to satirize they more they realised that the subject matter did not lend itself to satire but that other people's reaction to it did. The result of this research was Life of Brian, one of the highest-grossing movies ever produced by the Pythons.

The film was set in first century Palestine and centred on a character called Brian, whose life paralleled that of Jesus Christ. It’s now hard to imagine the furore that surrounded the film's release, especially as it appeared to end on such a positive finishing song. Up to that point, no film had received the ferocity or amount of protests by religious groups as the Pythons did. Of course most of the protesters never saw the film – they had only heard rumors.[3] The film was banned in several countries as blasphemous.[4] In the United States, for example where Catholic groups wanted attendance to be declared a sin, according to Richard Stern , the film was condemned by "no less than three rabbinical organizations as 'a crime against religion'".[5]

The Python team always denied categorically that the film satirized the life of Jesus.[6]


In fact the film went out of its way not to depict Jesus as the central character, with Brian foregrounded to make the point that this was about an entirely different person. Jesus Christ appears twice in the film; first at the end of the first scene (The Nativity) when the three wise men realise they have visited the wrong stable and go down the road to the stable with Jesus, Mary & Joseph divinely depicted; and the secondly the first scene after the credits when Christ is delivering the Sermon on the Mount. In this scene the words of Christ are taken from the Bible unaltered and the camera pans back through the crowd to Brian's mother at the back who shouts 'Speak Up'.

Unusually for a Python film the character of Jesus Christ is not played by a Python but by Kenneth Colley, a respected Shakespearan and Television Actor with more than 100 film roles to his credit.[7]

The film does however satirize both political and religious ideology and what John Cleese (a leading member of the Monty Python team) called 'closed systems of thinking'.[8] There are some wonderful episodes in the film which demonstrate this admirably. The "What have the Romans ever done for us?" sequence particularly demonstrates how political ideology can blind people to evidence, and the "Tell us Master" sequence demonstrates within the space of a couple of minutes how religious movements can form, split, and evolve to the point where despite the fact that even the most blatant and abusive insults are being hurled, thinking is twisted around to interpret these statements and insults as revered messages. The "You are all different" section further demonstrates how rigid thinking blinds followers to the actual text of the message. In this sequence, the film's satire on the unthinking nature of religious devotion is epitomised by Brian's attempt to persuade an enormous crowd of his followers to think for themselves:

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, you don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for yourselves! You're ALL individuals!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes! We're all individuals!
Brian: You're all different!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in Crowd: I'm not...

Left wing political groupings are also satirized in the film. In the scene where Brian joins the People's Front of Judea because he fancies Judith reference is made to other anti-imperialist movements such the Judean People's Front and Popular Front of Judea. The Eric Idle character, Stan (later Loretta), is even confused about which group he belongs to and the Popular Front turns out to be one man.

In a later scene the People's Front are passing through the sewers of Pilate's palace in an attempt to kidnap his wife when they run into another group, the Campaign for a Free Galilee. A fight breaks out between the two groups and Brian urges them to unite to fight against the common enemy.

ALL: The Judean People's Front!!!
Brian NO, the Romans.
ALL: Oh yeah, the Romans, hmmmm

Then the fight continues until all but Brian are dead. This symbolises the inter-necine squabbling common in closely aligned political movements.

The ending, the crucifixion, which probably caused the most outrage at the time is wonderful example of irony. The character who is singing 'Always look on the bright side of life' is a practical joker and an incurable optimist. He manages to convince a group of people who are dying a most agonising death, and end the film on a happy, whistly tune.

This scene also includes a pastiche of the ending of the film Spartacus.

In 2006 in a poll for the magazine Total Film, Life of Brian was voted the funniest film of all time.[9]

References

  1. http://www.mccmanchester.co.uk/sermons/sermon_21jan07.htm
  2. http://old.shipoffools.com/Cargo/Features99/Features/Brian.html
  3. quote from a review: http://www.toxicuniverse.com/review.php?rid=10000748
  4. cited in: http://www.georgetown.edu/users/aws23/LOB%20controversy.htm
  5. Stern, Richard C., Clayton Jefford, and Guerric DeBona, 1999, Savior on the Silver Screen. Boston: Paulist
  6. The Pythons always countered accusations of blasphemy by remarking it was simply an allegorical tale of people who follow religions without question. “We worked very hard not to blaspheme — because it’s really about this guy next door — but the bishop of Southwark didn’t understand this, Malcolm Muggeridge didn’t understand it and the people of America didn’t understand it either; but my mother, who’s an avid churchgoer, had no problem with it.” quote taken from http://www.fortunecity.com/lavendar/sydenham/306/mplob.html
  7. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079470/
  8. Dyke, Carl., 2002, "Learning from The Life of Brian: Savior for Seminars." Screening Scripture: Intertextual Connections Between Scripture and Film. Ed.George Aichele and Richard Walsh. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity
  9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2000/09/30/nfilm30.xml