Today was the first day of the Tokyo International Film Festival. I am covering the festival for a couple of publications this time around, and I was too busy running around getting photos of the opening ceremony and sorting through press releases to see a film. The festival’s opening film was The Social Network, which was completely sold out, with no seats for press, but I was not dying to see it anyway. So after returning home and sorting through all the photos I took, I popped in Life of Brian and got into bed.
The Life of Brian caused enormous controversy when it was released in 1979, with accusations of blasphemy getting the film restricted in many countries and outright band in others. John Cleese and Michael Palin famously debated British satirist Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark, on late night TV. Muggeridge called it a “tenth-rate film” that “there was nothing in this squalid little number that could possibly effect anyone” and the Bishop accused them of blasphemy. The satirist and the bishop had seen the film, but arrived 15 minutes late and missed the early scene that establishes that Brian and Jesus are actually separate people. The now infamous debate quickly digressed to the two members of the establishment making cheap insults directed at the young comedians.
The idea for the movie came when Eric Idle was doing an interview on Holy Grail and the journalist asked what their next film would be, and he glibly replied Jesus Christ: The Lust for Glory. This soon became a stock answer when they realized it quickly shut journalists up. When Idle told the other Pythons about it at the pub, they explored the idea of actually doing a comedy about Jesus. Idle later recalled he loved the idea of Jesus being a carpenter and ridiculing the craftsmanship of the cross which kept leaning over. In the televised debate, Palin said that one of the early joke ideas was someone calling a restaurant for a table for 12 for the last supper, and being told it would be difficult on a Saturday night. He later recalled that an early crucial decision was “do we make jokes about Jesus, or do we have Jesus in the film, and have the jokes separate from him?” Idle said that as they began their research, they found “that Jesus Christ was not pervious to comedy. There is nothing he says that you can laugh at.” Director Terry Jones recalled that they “wanted to focus on what was funny, and what was funny was not what Jesus says, but about how people misinterpret that.” And thus some of the best jokes in the film: “Blessed are the cheesemakers? What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” Palin said the researched the period quite seriously, and found there was a kind of “messiah fever” in Judea at the time, with a lot of people being mistaken messiahs, and this is the idea they seized upon the film.
The film is certainly not blasphemous or critical of Jesus, but it does satirize the history or religion. Terry Gilliam called the script “the best writing in Python—it is political writing, which is what is so brilliant about it.” Gilliam says the scene in which the fervent followers of the reluctant Brian find his discarded sandal and gourd and interpret them as signs from God “tells you everything you need to know about the history of religion.” Jones said it “isn’t blasphemous because it doesn’t touch on belief at all. It is heretical, because it touches on dogma and the interpretation of belief, rather than belief itself.” Personally, I find the funniest moments to be the silly jokes that don’t target religions, such as the speech-impeded Pontius Pilate declaring “we will welease Bwaian!” and the centurion correcting the grammar of Latin graffiti. Not surprisingly, many people who had never seen the film turned out to protest it, which only gave plenty of free media exposures and the Pythons were able to look at the bright side of life while they laughed all the way to the bank.