Cine-East Film Club Presents #44: 1979, The Life of Brian (Terry Jones)

by George_East on April 20, 2014

Roman centurion: ‘Crucifixion?  Very good. One cross each. First queue on the right’.

So it’s the Easter weekend and as such the Cine-East Film Club is going to postpone its next tribute post until next week (after films dedicated to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vera Chytilova and Maximillian Schell, we’ve still got tributes to Alain Resnais and Harold Ramis to come over the forthcoming weeks).   Instead to get in to the spirit of things at this solemn time of the year, it is time for a presentation of the infinitely quotable, student ever-present and finest moment from the Monty Python team, The Life of Brian.

Like This Is Spinal Tap it is a film with so many quotes that have entered general discourse (‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’, ‘splitter’, ‘always look on the bright side of life’ etc etc) that sometimes it is east to forget just what a great film it is as a whole.  It is the only time that the Python team made a proper narrative film.  Even Monty Python and The Holy Grail is in reality little more than a loosely  stitched together series of sketches.  The other two films in the Python canon, didn’t pretend to be anything other than sketches– And Now For Something Completely Different was a compilation of some of the best sketches from their telly show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the patchy Meaning of Life was by its structure a series of sketches covering all life stages.

With Life of Brian though we get in effect a gospel of an ordinary Jewish boy who just so happened to have shared his birthday with Jesus in a time crying out for messiahs.

The film starts with Brian’s birth (‘creeping around a cow shed at 2am doesn’t seem very wise to me’) and ends with him looking on the bright side of his life as he is crucified (‘see, not so bad once you are up’).    Graham Chapman in the title role (just as he did as King Arthur in The Holy Grail) plays it straight, as all around him falls apart.

Life of Brian has a far more satirical bite to it than anything else the Python team did.   Their usual surreal humour is still present (the Gilliam designed space ship that rescues Brian) and the poking fun at the stiffness and otherworldliness of the English ruling classes here translated to John Cleese correcting the sloppy Latin grammar of the graffiti artists daubing ‘Romans Go Home’ on the walls of Jerusalem.     The silliness is also present in abundance – the Biggus Dickus, wanking amongst the highest in Wome sequence with Michael Palin’s Pilate, sporting a Jonathan Ross like speech defect.

But amongst all of this there is also the brilliant observed purer-than-though divisions between the various liberation movements, who hate each other more than they do the Roman oppressor.  When I first saw the film, when I was still at school, I didn’t appreciate just how accurate was its portrayal of the various Trotskyite groups of the far left.  It would not take too long at university to realise that in their battle to sell minuscule numbers of their unreadable newspapers, the various groups did hate each other with venom because of perceived heresies over the Krondstadt mutiny or other obscure events that formed part of revolutionary mythology.

However, although the differences between the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea and the splitters of the Popular Front (‘wanker’)  is hilarious and hilariously accurate, far left groups are a pretty easy target

The far more biting  (and equally funny) parts of the film are those bits directed at religion.   The blind following of any old nonsense simply because it is contained in religious texts or spouted by some religious leader or the other is at the heart of all religions.  They work on the basis of the denial of rationality (which after all it what faith demands) and the denial of individuality (that is after all what doctrine demands).   It is this that is the real target of the film’s satire.

There is that brilliantly observed exchange between Brian and the followers he has accidently picked up, which pretty much sums religion up:

Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.

The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!

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 your selves! You’re ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

And of course the delight of the crowd in being able to stone to death a blasphemer just for saying ‘Jehova’.  There is no greater crime than taking the Lord’s name in blame – you just have to remember which Lord it is wherever and whenever you are.

But some of the satire is subtler.  The film deals, for example, with how misunderstandings and mistranslations can change the course of religion.  Just as the probable misinterpretation in the Latin vulgate bible of ‘young woman’ in the original Greek for ‘virgin’ is at the base of the deeply fucked up guilt ridden attitude towards sex of Christianity in general and the Catholic church in particular, the Sermon on the Mount being misheard by those standing at the back of crowd gives us the sublime ‘blessed are the cheesemakers’.

We scoff now when we see the oft repeated television clip of the absurd spectacle of Palin and Cleese being confronted by an outraged Malcolm Muggeridge and the then Bishop of Southwark on the late night television show, Friday Night Saturday Morning.  It looks absurd – just as it was absurd that many towns up and down the land banned the film when it came out (a ban that Aberystwyth only lifted in 2009!).  Yet this is to overlook the fact that in recent years we have seen a revival of bans on various artistic works for offending religious sensibility – even in our universities (witness the LSE’s ban last year on the Jesus and Mo cartoons used by the Secular Society on its tee shirts, at a student fair).     As Voltaire recognised the right to mock, and yes insult, religious beliefs is at the very foundation of the freedom of speech.   The irrationality of faith (even if it is irrationality that has lasted millennia) should not protect religious ideas from the robust scrutiny that secular ideas constantly operate  under.

So on this day of all days, remember ‘he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.’

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