"God created man in His own image" (Genesis, 1:27). He gave him humour, and saw it was good. Later, God created cinema, and saw it was good. Still later, God created the Monty Python, but was not sure it was good. It got out of hand, because this disrespectful bunch used God's creations, man, humour and cinema, to turn them against religion.
So the story goes: some believers think "Life of Brian" is blasphemous. It was banned on its initial release by several UK councils, Ireland and Norway. However, non-believers think this aspect is trivial. Let's try to neutrally assess how provocative the movie is.
In any case, the religious satire needs to be tempered by two caveats: the movie not only mocks religion, but almost everything MP can lay their hands upon; the blasphemous parts are not hostile nor gratuitous. Let's explore both elements. I won't discuss humour, because it is subjective (for me the movie is hilarious).
1. What do MP target apart from religion?
- People. Except Brian, humans are stupid and/or ridiculous morons. Brian's mother is greedy, vulgar and simple-minded. Persons quarrel foolishly precisely when Jesus voices his Sermon on the Mount, a message of love. Even Brian's girlfriend, brainwashed by ideology, abandons Brian on the cross when he asks to be freed.
- Crowds. If individually people are pathetic, when they gather, they also are ugly. Women cruelly regroup at the beginning to lapidate a poor lad whose crime is trifle. An insensitive mob plays with prisoners' lives by asking for irrelevant pardons to make fun of Pilate's pronunciation. Crowds blindly worship Brian: "We've got to work it out for ourselves", they repeat like brainless zombies. The suicide squad, well, commits suicide without freeing Brian.
- Oppressive power. Romans imprison, crucify and execute. Yet the powerful are laughable. The mighty Pilate and Biggus Dikus are grotesque. A Roman patrol, instead of arresting Brian for a graffiti, makes him copy a hundred times "Romans go home" in Latin (a reference to the slogan "US go home" during the Vietnam War, which ended four years before the movie was released).
- Vain ideology that delivers no results (a possible reference to left-wing politics). To resist oppression, the rebel group displays an impressive incompetence. They spend more time fighting each other than against Romans (People's Front of Judea, Judean People's Front, Judean Popular People's Front). They just talk pompously and don't manage to perform one single effective action during the entire movie: only does Brian graffiti the fortress. The rebel leader is cynical, cowardly and short-sighted.
- Themselves. Like a schoolboy bunch, MP make fun of everything including their own movie. Each of them plays different roles, some completely silly. Graham Chapman appears in frontal nudity, very rare in cinema at the time. They introduce an absurd and useless scene parodying Star Wars (WTF?), whereby a spaceship captures Brian (FWTF?) and crashes after a battle (FWTFF?).
2. The movie iconoclastically tackles various religious fundamentals. MP argued their movie is heretical, not blasphemous, because it mocks dogma but not God: granted, even though the representation of Jesus is ambiguous (see below). Also, it sometimes feels as if it does not criticise religion as much as the usage people make of it, since they are dumb as noted above.
- The Nativity. The three Wise Men mistake Brian for Jesus, implying the Latter was a man like any other.
- The Crucifixion. Brian ends on the cross like Jesus: the loop with the initial confusion is looped. Crucifixion, which was actually widespread, is not shown as horrible but as a relatively minor punishment. The final scene is not tragic but comical: the crucified sing "Always look on the bright side of life", one of MP's best songs. Understandably, this sequence was highly controversial.
- The Messiah. It is easy to become one like Brian: a few words, some mystery and crowds will follow senselessly. Faith, as love, is blind.
- The Sayings. Jesus's Sermon is misunderstood ("Blessed are the cheese-makers", "Blessed are the Greek"). Yet it is unclear who is being made fun of: people who miss the point, or Jesus who accumulates the "Blessed are". Jesus is surrounded by a halo, but this positive view could be first or second degree.
- Relics. When Brian drops a gourd and a shoe, his followers absurdly split into two groups, each worshipping a different relic. And that is how sects are born...
- Fear. Religion is based on fear (Hell, Judgement Day, the deadly sins, the ten commandments, crucifixion representations, prohibitions). In the movie, would-be prophets distil fear with dreadful predictions... until a lunatic turns this rhetoric upside-down ("A friend shall lose his friend's hammer"). Again it is not clear if the target is religion, or people who need to be frightened in order to orientate their deeds.
- Wows. A hermit breaks his silence wow... because Brian stepped on his foot. Wows appear as a useless and easily reversible commitment.
In summary, "Life of Brian" is farcical yet meaningful, richer than its simple blasphemous reputation: it blends MP's unique style into a consistent and funny satire. Historically well documented, it arguably is the best of the three movies they directed, less gratuitous and nonsensical than "Holy Grail" and "The Meaning of Life".
Behind the farce, the movie delivers a hedonistic message: even if life is bleak, let's have fun. People are idiotic and cruel, but also laughable. Oppressive powers can be ridiculed. Humans are condemned, but show resilience by singing. Ideology can be a risible delusion. We don't know if religion is right or wrong, but it can be caricatured.
You will not like this movie if you are hermetic to MP's humour or if your religious beliefs are hurt, both being understandable reactions. But then, isn't comedy always irreverent?
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