Monty Python may have expected some backlash, but they certainly did not expect a Spanish Inquisition when they released Life of Brian (1979). However, that was quite what they were met with when the movie first came out and a large number of priests throughout the Western world who wanted to make a name for themselves attacked them, claiming to be offended.
The movie was banned in Norway, Ireland, cities of England (by local councils) and by the TV channels BBC and ITV for the “fear of offending Christians of the country”. Many times the ban came from people who hadn’t even seen the movie, based on descriptions provided by religious groups, like the “Nationwide Festival of Light”. Christians, Jews and Lutherans protested its screenings, and, whoever tried to watch it, first had to pass through raging crowds of fanatics. Some bans lasted until the 21st century (as in Wales and Germany).
The movie’s commercial success was not seriously affected from all this row, since it became the most successful British movie of the year, with buses carrying viewers from where it was banned to neighboring cities that allowed its screening. The ridiculousness of all this did not escape the Pythons, who used it to advertise the movie in Sweden with posters climing the movie was “So funny it was banned in Norway!”
The movie itself happens to be innocent to accusations of blasphemy, since the protagonist Brian is clearly a different person than Jesus, as stated clearly in the second scene of the film (right after the introduction). The script wasn’t even addressing Christianity specifically, but the tendency of people applying meaning even where there is none; as illustrated in the scene where Brian, in order to escape Roman soldiers, starts preaching random messianic rants among other would-be religious leaders doing the same. When the Romans pass by him and the danger is over, he quits his improvised sermon mid-way and starts to walk away, failing to conclude with the heavenly rewards his impromptu version of piety would endow any believers with. Only then does his audience become excited with curiosity and start following the unwilling new messiah to reveal his “secret”; no matter that he insists of having invented the whole thing.
Starting point of writing the movie was a scene, which was never included in the final script, where Jesus’ cross brakes because of the inability of the carpenters who made it, and Jesus angrily gives directions on how to build it properly. After discussion among the members of the comic team they decided that it would be unfair to satirize Jesus himself, as they thought “he’s not particularly funny, what he’s saying isn’t mockable, it’s very decent stuff” (from The autobiography of the Pythons by the Pythons).
When the original producer read the script he withdrew his financial support and Eric Idle turned to George Harrison, ex-member of The Beatles, for help, who accepted to found the company Handmade Films and fund the team with 3 million dollars “because he wanted to see the movie” as he said, buying the “world’s most expensive cinema ticket” as Terry Jones put it.
During an interview-debate among two Pythons against a Bishop and a professional Christian, John Cleese claims that the movie does not satirize Jesus but the close-mindedness he himself experienced in childhood. Michael Palin tried to explain that the movie is not religious satire but shows how some aspects of the modern British society and politics abuse the biblical stories.
Among the absurdities of the film’s reception, what is usually forgotten is the political satire of the movie. When Brian visits the local gladiator arena, he meets the all-too-many “Judean fronts” that resist (with inconsequential effects) the Roman Empire. Among them, the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ stands in the lead against the ‘Judean People’s Front’, the ‘Judean Popular People Front’ and the ‘Judean Popular Front’ (a single, old, lonely, Trotskyite-like figure). They are separated by animosities, schisms and strives that are lost in the memories of the “activists” themselves, who don’t even remember which Front they belong to or why they split in the first place. At the same time, none of them succeeds any effective action, they are all lost in Daedalic bureaucratic procedures and endless party meetings involving surreal-like rhetoric.
A Greek like myself will be reminded of the triptych GCP (Greek Communist Party), ML-GCP (Marxist-Leninist-GCP) and GCP-ML (GCP-Marxist-Leninist), with the latter two (according to unverified information that are lost in thousands of pages in dusty books) having split because they could not agree on whether a post-revolutionary Greece would do better to become an agricultural economy or an industrial one!
Watching the movie today, all these reactions might seem merely colorful, as if removed from the modern reality of Christianity. The Church has lost much of the power it had just 40 years ago, and TV shows like South Park can illustrate Jesus himself in as a ridiculous depiction as they like, practically undisturbed. But, like Hitchens reminded us, as the rats in Camus’ Plague that, though they retract in the sewers at the end of the novel, they will always constitute a threat to the inhabitants, so will the Church, even today, once in a while might remember its former glory, however distant, to show her true face and wear the red robes of the inquisitor once more; to silence even a facebook commenter or the actors of a theatre play. Of course, today it is Islam that plays the central role in this story, silencing with threats (and acts) of death whoever dares to utter the wrong words or draw the wrong image. Perhaps it’s time for a sequel, placed in Medina.