Religion in Film: Finding the Truth in Comedy/ The Life of Brian, 1979

This is part of a religion in film series, concerning spirituality in its many forms through the cinematic lens. In this article I will be exploring Monty Python’s 1979 satire “The Life of Brian”. The film was written and performed by the famed British comedy troupe and I will focus on how it uses comedy to critique the idea of blindly following a leader and how religion can become immersed in politics. I will also discuss how this is one of the films which strengthened me and taught me to think for myself.

Part 1: Blessed are the Cheese Makers

Brian’s Mother: He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!

I’ll begin with a memory: I was 15 or 16, I can’t quite remember and I was in bible camp. It was out in the mountains of British Columbia where I felt a million miles away from home. I was with my Sunday School friends as we all went together, representing our local Southern Baptist Church. The camp was nice, clean and friendly, while the Councillors had thick Southern drawls as most of them came from American States such as Alabama or Louisiana. They all had a friendly way about them, very polite and respectable, and there was really nothing at the time that struck me as strange or different about the situation. After all this was the type of environment I grew up on, people who were very enthusiastic and keen about God.

However while this was all happening around me, I felt my feelings waning away from this unbridled enthusiasm. All my life I have been enamoured with movies, more so than anything I read in the bible, and there was a part of me that felt I didn’t belong. It wasn’t that I had lost my faith, it was just the idea that I wasn’t really connecting with these people who seemed to be different than me. After all here I was away from my home, and my family, meeting with these strangers who seemed very determined to get me to understand the word of God. There wasn’t a movie theatre around for miles, and my personal film collection, which I considered to be my gospel was miles away at home. There was a sickness to my stomach I couldn’t quite shake, and I would try to spend my week there as an anonymous person so as not to rise suspicion or any special attention.

There was one saving grace which came in the form of a work book. This book was used for our daily Bible Camp classes which went over different subjects. Scrolling through the book one day I came upon a page which had a list of films. I couldn’t tell you what a relief it was just to see movie titles again and connecting to my passion of cinema just for a brief instant albeit on paper. But there was something wrong with this list of movies, something unclean about them. This wasn’t just a list for christian movie buffs, rather it was a list of blasphemy. The films mentioned in the book were seen as immoral, and considered sinful. Not only did they list the films, but they also described what it was in them which made them unfit to view. The list included Goodfellas, which was damned for being full of an immoderately high number of curse words; The Last Temptation of Christ for depicting Jesus too much like a human being, and who dreams of a normal life married to Mary Magdalene; Die Hard 2 for having a high body count including a giant plane crash which kills 158 people on board, and finally there was The Life of Brian, a comedy which was accused of mocking Jesus as the Messiah.

I’d like to say that I rebelled against the establishment and sought out these films as soon as I got home, but I wasn’t ready yet. It took me awhile to break out of my role of follower and loyal church goer, and find my own path towards spiritual enlightenment. The more I grew, the more disillusioned I got about the church in general, witnessing hypocrisies within my congregation, and the breeding of fear among the people who followed. For more about my experiences with religion and fear, you can look at my piece on The Ten Commandments. But finally there was a moment where I decided I had enough of the church as my faith in it was crumbling. It didn’t have the answers I was seeking, rather it was regurgitating morals, rules, and obligations ad nauseam that I was frankly getting sick of. I broke out on my own and searched for my own answers, my own way.

Part 2: What have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

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!

Crowd: (In unison) Yes we are all individuals!

This finally brings me to The Life of Brian, one of those films on that phoney sacrilegious list which brainwashed me into thinking it was a pathway to hell. To think I was afraid of a Monty Python film, a very silly film. Yet I could see why the church would try to steer us away from the brilliant satire and anarchic method of the film. After all behind all of its buffoonery, and clever word play, Brian does have something to say about blindly following leaders both in religion and politics, and gives a message about thinking for ourselves.

It follows Brian (Graham Chapman), a victim of circumstance who is born the same time as Jesus, only in the stable next door. Brian has grown up in Roman occupied Judea with his overbearing mother (Terry Jones who was also the director). His hatred for the Romans has caused him to seek out a radical political faction known as “The People’s Front of Judea”, a group who are more concerned with fighting with other revolutionaries with similar names as them than with the actual Romans.

Nevertheless, Brian decides to join partially due to his infatuation with one of the attractive young rebels. After a series of misadventures, he is captured by the Romans and is brought before an Elmer Fudd sounding Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). He eludes execution, by falling into the mother of all deus ex machinas in the form of an alien spaceship, which looks inspired by Douglas Adams. He then falls back to Earth, and hides out in a parade of prophets, where after spouting a few nonsensical sentences is mistaken for the Messiah. Now poor Brian is bombarded with a group of mindless followers he doesn’t want, and who interpret everything he does and says as gospel truth. No matter how much he tells them to “Fuck Off”, they continue to blindly follow him, even surprising him when he opens up his window in the nude.

The only way Brian is able to shake them is to fall back into the hands of the Romans who once again capture him, and sentence him to be crucified. After a few phoney rescue attempts which become a practice in futility, it’s apparent that Brian will now die on the cross a martyr, but he goes out with a song in his heart “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

When I first became aware of Monty Python, it was like a shock to the system. I gravitated to their brand of nonsensical humour and meta doses of reality and satire as if it were a life changing experience. Their groundbreaking series Flying Circus always contained so many revolutionary ways of using the television medium it felt like they couldn’t be contained. It was a natural move for them to go into movies, attacking it with the same unruly verve as with their series. However Life of Brian showed a maturity. Unlike their previous film The Holy Grail, which is ingenious in its own right, Brian tried to take on the religious establishment head on. In other words, it felt like the first time Monty Python had something to say and they weren’t being coy about it.

The film sparked much controversy regarding the role of the church and religion calling for boycotts all over the globe. Michael Palin and John Cleese actually went on talk show and debated the film with notable Christians Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, who was then the Bishop of Southwark at the time. They accused the Pythons of outright blasphemy and taking what was sacred and making a mockery of it. Perhaps the most memorable part of the interview is the witty retort by Cleese who said “Four hundred years ago, we would’ve been burnt for this film, now I’m suggesting we’ve made an advance.”

It’s safe to say most Christians like Muggeridge and Stockwood, or the ones who listed The Life of Brian in my work book missed the point of the film, or at least didn’t view it with an open mind. The Life of Brian isn’t an attack on faith, rather it’s an attack on those who would exploit it for their own means. In the end of the film, Brian is a victim, a pawn for both the Romans as well as the radicals who use him as a martyr. The film is a tragedy because he never asked for this, he only wanted to be left alone. The teachings of Christ are never mocked, save for a brief scene near the beginning during the Sermon on the Mount, where a few people in the back tell him to “Speak up” because they can’t hear him. Jesus isn’t the subject of the film, rather it’s the fanatics who would use to exploit people like Jesus for their own benefit.

It’s here we can see perhaps better than any other film how religion can so easily get caught up in politics. The real villains of the film are The Romans who represent dictatorship and censoring new ideas. Pontius Pilate is seen as a buffoon, who doesn’t realize his speech impediment is the butt of jokes. But the Pythons make it clear Pilate and his army came down to suppress ideas, not only that but brutalized the Jews during their reign. Of course things were bad in Judea, and this film, though a comedy does a better job than most historical epics to describe how bad it was. Many of the film’s jokes elude to people being stoned, bodies being mutilated in gladiator fights, and women being raped by the centurions, all of this done in the usual tongue and cheek humour the Pythons are known for.

But the other villains are the political factions as well who are meant to fight for the people and rise up against the Romans. They are mostly seen as bureaucratic blowhards who spend more time bickering than fighting any real uprising. When they see Brian as a sacrificial lamb to support their cause, they don’t hesitate to throw him to the wolves.

Then there are the followers themselves, the dimwitted group who seem lost, hopeless and looking for answers. They are the annoying bunch who attach themselves to Brian hoping he would lead them to salvation. They see him as a miracle worker, which he tries to explain he is not, but they are too naive and ignorant to think anything but. Though their scenes are clearly played for laughs, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the misguided souls. There was a part of me that sympathized with them in that I saw a bit of my younger self within that crowd, chanting and blindly following for the simple reason that I was told to. It’s a dangerous road to go down, enough to lead towards a path of dictatorship.

Part 3: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say:
Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble. Give a whistle.
And this’ll help things turn out for the best. And…
Always look on the bright side of life.

When I look back at my time at those bible camps which did preach a certain brand of censorship, I get angry. It wasn’t so much anger towards the situation I was in, but more towards myself. I was a follower, I did what I was told and I knew deep down, part of me didn’t like that idea. It was a very repressive time for me, and I felt I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to. I had serious questions in my mind about religion and God, and I always felt I would get regurgitated answers which were meant to reassure me, but also cloud me. It was like a protective mechanism so as not to upset me, and it continued in my life for a long time.

In hindsight, I feel what I was going through was a certain brainwashing, maybe not meant to be deliberate or even vindictive, but it stripped me from a certain individuality. I was discouraged to think for myself, or have opinions of my own, and it seemed as if it would be disrespectful or even blasphemous if I did speak out. Whatever the case, it kept me in a bubble for a long time, and I wouldn’t begin to see the cracks until I finished high school and a whole new world began to open up to me. This new world was very painful, and hurtful, but I learned as I navigated through it that it was a more honest one, where I was free to question things including my own faith.

I can definitely see the allure of going with the group, and believing in things without questioning it. I can sometimes see myself longing for that time in a strange way, and perhaps that longing will always stay with me. Knowing what I know now has left me a bit angry and bitter towards that time mostly towards myself. There was an air of ignorance and intolerance which was pertinent in the church, however I didn’t want to accept the truth, instead I followed with my blinders on. There has always been a sense of guilt I have felt in me about that time, I saw people close to me who were hurt and manipulated by members of the church, they were victims of emotional blackmail. I said nothing when I saw this, and I stayed with the group, careful not to make waves. I escaped this situation through watching movies, which I felt was a window into a more understanding world, and which taught me more about myself than the church ever did.

When I finally saw The Life of Brian, it wasn’t the big, evil, blasphemous film my bible camp made it out to be. It was a very silly film, but it was an honest one. In no way was it mocking Christian doctrine, rather it was calling out Christian hypocrisy, and what’s wrong with that? If Christians insist on being held up on such a high standard, then they should be called out on their bull shit. I saw their hypocrisy first hand, and it can be very damaging in the very worst way.

I have stated before in other articles that more than any other genre, comedy has the power to deflate the powerful. It can tear down institutions such as corporations, politics, and religions who sometimes think they are above the law, or criticism. The Life of Brian levels the playing field taking the phoney prophets to task, and showing both the ones with faith and the faithless not to go through life as part of a group, but to think for yourselves.

I wish I saw The Life of Brian earlier in my life, although I’m not confident what my initial reaction would be. Perhaps I would go with the group and consider it an evil indictment on our faith, and not want to watch it again. However, were that to happen, I have a feeling it would’ve stayed in my mind. I would’ve secretly found the sight of Brian’s mom slapping a baby Brian to be hysterical, or seeing a gladiator losing a battle by having a cardiac arrest being downright absurd in the best way possible. Most of all, I would remember Brian, the lone sensical hero in a nonsensical world trying to explain to a faithful group of followers to think for themselves, and then telling them to fuck off. The film is ridiculous for sure, but it’s a ridiculous film with ideas which could open up a whole new world if you just pay attention.

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