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In the 1970's the Monty Python team of comedians had become stars in
the UK and US and their film the Holy Grail cemented this even further.
During promotion of this film the team come up with the idea to make a
film called "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory". Researching the subject
they decide against doing this but instead decide to make a film set in
Judea around the time of Christ "The Life of Brian". However once
they come to release the film they come into direct conflict with
seemingly every organised religion in the UK and the face of moral
outrage, Mary Whitehouse. This documentary looks back at the firestorm
that started as a result of this "blasphemous" comedy.
Widely held as a classic comedy and one of the best pieces of work from Monty Python it is easy for modern viewers to forget what a total s**t-storm kicked off as a result of it. However modern events have perhaps aided understanding (the reaction to the Mohammad cartoons and various other protests) and sadly yet again we seem to be slipping towards a situation where religion is totally off the table in regards criticism and discussion. So it is timely that this film comes along and gives us another chance to learn from history (a chance we are unlikely to take) by looking back at the religious furore over Brian. Perhaps wisely the documentary also looks at the making of the film and as such offers something for everyone, but it is the second half that is most interesting from a social point of view.
This latter half deals with the fallout and it is mostly a very balanced affair that shows us the protests and interviews from the period and gives us much time to any one of the Pythons as it does to the director of Mediawatch John Beyer (who viewers may recognise from his hand wringing a few years ago over Brass Eye's attack on the media hysteria around paedophilia). In doing this it presents all the arguments fairly but doesn't get hung up over the legal technicalities about what is blasphemy. There is no denying that Brian shadows the life of Jesus and one can see why religious groups got upset because, although it never mocks Jesus, it does mock organised religion relentlessly and effectively which is the enduring strength of the film (that and the laughs). Lots of good points are made about this and the discussion is relevant today. It never really gets to the level of serious debate but it is interesting nonetheless. The makers also did very well to get the surviving Pythons involved and only use supporting commentators briefly.
Overall then an interesting film from a film history point of view but also a relevant one given the fact that we find ourselves back in a rising tide of religious intolerance. Well put together and with hardly a dull moment in it this is a great companion piece to the film itself and fans would do well to seek it out.
(Swedish advertising tag line in 1979)
"The Life of Brian" was recently voted "Best comedy of all time" in Britain. The Pythons regard it as their jewel. Quote Terry Gilliam: "This film does give hope to people who still want to think ... and laugh."
From his humble birth on, Brian (Graham Chapman) is mistaken for the messiah. Later, when Brian is grown up and joins the Judean People's Front in opposition to Roman rule, he is again mistaken for a Messiah, and in addressing his mob of would-be acolytes, Brian pretty much sums up the theme of the movie: "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!!"
Even before its release in 1979, "Brian" was notorious for allegedly mocking the life of Christ, but it was arguably the Pythons' greatest artistic, as well as commercial success. EMI chief Bernard Delfont turned down the script barely a few days before the crew was supposed to start shooting. George Harrison of the Beatles, one of the Pythons' "greatest fans", stepped in as the "savior". While the Pythons were still filming in Tunisia, the British organization "Festival of light" started a dedicated campaign to brand the new movie as "blasphemous" a charge the Pythons still deny. The film ultimately received a British AA (above 14) rating, but to quell any riots still got banned in various communities and even countries, like Norway. Overseas, it was opposed by Jewish Rabbis, Catholics and in the Protestant "Bible Belt", but nevertheless generated some 20 million $ in revenue there.
This hour-long documentary delves into the controversy's history through new interviews with the Pythons (now in their 60s) and critics of then and now, including original behind-the-scenes footage for the fans and clips of the most (in)famous clashes, such as a late-night BBC II talk show from Nov 9, 1979 featuring John Cleese/Michael Palin vs. Mervin Stockwood (clergyman) and born-again Christian Malcolm Muggeridge. It is part of the two-disk set "Monty Python's The Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition."
The Pythons always had the nerve to offend. The doc's narration is not what you would expect it attempts a curious mixture of timid, respectable, British style and speech bubbles straight out of the illustrated manual "Hype for Dummies": "This is the story of one of the greatest films and one of the greatest cultural battles of modern times... (Flying Circus is) one of the most influential comedy programs Britain has ever produced..." Brian (Chapman) must be rotating in his grave. Perhaps nothing can illustrate better that "Brian" probably wouldn't be made today. Still, it is a treat for those of us who missed all the fuss.
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