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Life of Brian (1979)

| August 17, 1979

If we could simply put down the sword of propriety when it comes to the Bible, it is possible to have a good laugh without becoming obscene.  That’s what the guys of the Monty Python group have done with Life of Brian, a film that does not attack anyone’s religious faith but asks logical questions left present in the most famous book in the world.  I mean, really, what are three oriental astrologers, dressed in full vestments, doing bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to a cow shed at two in the morning, claiming to have followed a star?  A possible answer comes from the angry tenant of the cow shed concludes: “Following a bottle, more like.”

The controversy that surrounded Monty Python’s Life of Brian makes little- to-no sense when one observes that those responsible for making it controversial never actually saw it.  This is the case with nearly every film that rattles cages.  Self-promoting, self-righteous gatekeepers of morality are always quick to grab a headline by condemning a film without seeing it because doing so would reveal that their argument to be completely baseless.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian , which was charged as a blasphemous mockery of the life of Jesus, but if you see the movie then you know that this is not the case.  The movie isn’t about Jesus.  It fills in the Bible’s loopholes with questions.  It takes place in his neighborhood, the areas around him in Judea in 33 A.D. and focuses, not on the supporting players in his story but on the unimportant background extras, those that the Bible necessarily leaves out.

Among them is Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a man of no importance who, through the comedy of fate, is mistaken for the messiah and ironically can’t convince his followers otherwise.  Brian is a generally good man who just happened to have been born in a cow shed just a few doors down from Jesus.  The three wise men arrive at the shed, think that Brian is the newborn king, pay homage, and only realize their mistake when they go to leave.  The holy family – in one of the funniest sight gags in the entire film – are seen at a distance bathed in a radiant glow emanating from their halos.

As a man, Brian is practically the poster child from the meek, but far from a positive indication that they shall inherit the Earth.  In fact, just the opposite.  If Jesus’ life is endowed by our creator with certain inalienable fates, then Brian seems left to the whims of circumstance.  His adventure is fraught with a maddening series of misunderstandings.  In an atmosphere in which a rumor of that the messiah might be in the vicinity, Brian accidentally bumbles his way into gaining a growing legion of followers.  Yet, the more he tries to explain to them that he is not the messiah, the more his followers see the profundity in his wisdom:

Brian: “I’m not the messiah, honestly”
Girl: “Only the messiah denies his divinity.”

In that way, Life of Brian is not skewering Jesus, but skewers the entire notion of blind faith, for there in the dark any half-track philosophy is possible whether it has a foundation or not.  The film seems to argue that sometimes breaking bread is just breaking a piece of bread.  What makes it funny is Brian’s massive following refuses to hear otherwise, even from Brian’s own mouth.  In speaking to a crowd, he tries to persuade them that they don’t have to follow him or anyone:

Brian: You’re all individuals.
Crowd [in unison]: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Asked by Dick Cavett about the controversy, John Cleese admitted that initially the story was to get closer to Jesus by having Brian be the thirteenth apostle who was perpetually late due to a demanding wife, but the gang realized that when comedy draws close to Jesus, it doesn’t work.  “Christ was wise, and flexible and intelligent, and comedy is about greed, envy, malice, avarice, lust, stupidity.”  For me, that sounds about a respectful as one can get.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized