Monty Python's Life of Brian: Irreverance? Blasphemy? Biting social satire? Help!

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Brian Thibodeau, Dec 31, 2003.

  1. Brian Thibodeau

    Brian Thibodeau Supporting Actor

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    Contributing to another thread got me to thinking about one of my favourite movies, and whether I’ve been missing something in it all these years.
    The film is MONTY PYTHON’s LIFE OF BRIAN (1979). A film I’ve always believed to be about the dangers of worshipping false idols as well as a satire on Roman times, in particular their treatment of early Christians, filtered through a 20th Century British mentality
    .
    Early in our relationship, about a year and a half ago, my girlfriend and I had a brief debate about this film.

    I love it. She hates it.

    She says it’s blasphemous. I say its irreverent at worst, culturally savvy at best. Months later, the subject came up again in a different context, but we still stood by our viewpoints. She did, however, casually mention that she’d never allow the film in her home, which worried me a bit. My girlfriend was raised in a very Christian Korean household (though not quite Bible-thumper heaven), but has questioned certain aspects of religion for years now. I know she’s sitting on the fence; I’m just curious to see which side she falls off. After she left university and moved out on her own, I think she began to realize what a cmoparatively restrictive environment she grew up in. She certainly has reaped the rewards of a moral upbringing, but she also knows how far it can sometimes set a person back once they have to confront the realities of the world at large. Her questioning nature has made more open-minded over the last few years. I sincerely hope that this will continue for her, because I’m of the mindset that there’s so much more to understand about the world than just religion, as important as it can be to many people, yet I would never deny anyone their right to practise whatever religion they saw fit. I can see the value of it in my girlfriend in many ways. And fortunately, she has not once tried to force her religion upon me, either overtly or subtly, largely due these factors. So far so good...

    (note to administrators: please don’t take this as an attempt to start a religious debate; this really IS about the movie, I promise!)

    I know the controversy that surrounded LIFE OF BRIAN upon its release, and how the Church of England (?) and assorted religious representatives publicly and vehemently denounced the film before they had actually seen it, and I easily attributed the furor to the usual kind of socio-political gainsaying that often accompanies the release of such films. I believe the same controvery attended the opening of LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST in 1988 and will no doubt accompany the upcoming Mel Gibson effort THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), the debates around which have already begun to fascinate me on a pop-cultural level.
    My girlfriend saw LIFE OF BRIAN when she was about 13, a very impressionable time in her life, especially considering her living environment. I first saw it when I was about 12, but my family had by then stiopped practising religion for some seven years, so while I barely understood most of the humour, I was able to find the film funny due to my fondness for the Python brnad of humour.

    So I guess my question is this: Is LIFE OF BRIAN blasphemous? Am I the one who’s missing something? My girlfriend claims it makes fun of people who worship god (remember she saw it as at 13), but I simply cannot read it that way. I see it as a film that makes fun of people who worship false idols, and in effect it savagely lampoons our contemporary, celebrity-obsessed culture. I mean, Jesus Christ is never actually seen on screen is he? You hear him, and you see people listening to him (including the people in the back who can’t really hear him and, I think, end up following Brian). The Brian character, while hapless, is clearly shown to want none of the adoration he receives. I think it’s a damning commentary on how easily large groups of people can be led down the wrong path (new-age philosophies, televangelists, questionable self-help programs, Hollywood), but it never overtly implies that any of the long-standing religions, in this case Christianity, is ALSO the wrong path. Wise Christians are visible in the film, and to my knowledge, are not made fun of. However, I suppose in this context, I can understand how the real-life Christians might feel the film was making fun of them in a roundabout way. My girlfriend firmly believes its making fun of all people who have faith. I think it’s making fun of people who have misplaced faith, which is very, VERY common in the modern world.

    Please remember, I’m not trying to start a debate about religion or the existence of God or anything like that. I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe. I just want to know if anyone has interesting opinions ON THIS FILM. I have the Criterion Collection edition of this on DVD and can’t bare the thought of parting with it, but if it means one day capitulating to save someone a lot of grief, perhaps it might have to be considered.

    I honestly hope in time, she might be able to re-evaluate this film with the benefit of years.

    Until then, if anyone can recommend a good hiding place for it, suggestions are welcome...

    Well, any thoughts, or have I put everybody to sleep at this point?
     
  2. andrew markworthy

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    First, to fill you in on the background. Some prominent members of the Church of England (the 'state church' in that the Queen is its head, and the C of E handles coronations of the Royal Family), along with many other churches, objected to TLOB. Some objected to it outright, others to selected bits of it. Needless to say, this guaranteed massive audiences when the movie opened. I think the religious reaction to the movie also ultimately undermined the protestors' positions, as it was seen by many (rightly or wrongly) as religious zealots jumping on the bandwagon to get some publicity.

    It's worth listening to John Cleese's commentary on TLOB DVD. He says that the majority of the movie is intended as a commentary on what unquestioning *belief* can make you do, not on religion in general or Christianity in particular. If you analyse the movie, there's as much parody of political fringe groups (the Judean Popular Front et al) as there is of religion. The one bit John Cleese felt uncomfortable about was the crucifiction scene, and amongst the Christians I know, this is the bit that sticks in the gullet.

    FWIW, I don't particularly like TLOB because of the crucifiction scene and the mockery of people with speech impediments. However, I don't think it's blasphemous, since that requires a willing and knowing attack on God and it certainly doesn't do that.
     
  3. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

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    I agree with this.

    More of the film lampoons liberal activism than anything religious. The Jewish revolutionaries were a direct comment on the socialist and left-wing political activist groups in England that were constantly split and killing each other over details, often more caught up in their own internal politics than dealing with the issues they claim to be dealing with.

    And, of course, there are just some great secular bits of comedy that have nothing to with religion or polics, like the Roman guard correcting Brian's graffiti grammer or "Biggus Dickus."

    To me, it seems absurd that people are upset over the movie poking fun of Jesus when it's not about Jesus- it's about Brian.

    Even if the film was poking fun at Christians or those with faith- so what? I laugh at movies that make fun of characteristics I have (male, Jewish, white, computer programmer, etc).

    Brian, your post makes your wife out to be reasonable and somewhat open-minded. Maybe you can get her to watch it with you and talk about it. It may prove a good way to understand each other even better and bring you closer.
     
  4. Francois Caron

    Francois Caron Cinematographer

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    Is LIFE OF BRIAN blasphemous? I would have to say "no." Here's a bit of what I wrote in my review of the movie. You can find the complete review over here.


    Flame suit is now on! [​IMG]

    P.S. Crucifixions were a very popular Roman invention. Even Spartacus and all of his surviving rebel slaves were nailed up there.
     
  5. Rich Malloy

    Rich Malloy Producer

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    Is "Life of Brian" blasphemous? Yup, and damn proud of it, it would seem to me (John Cleese's weenie-ish post-hoc comments excepted, of course.)

    It's not simply an evisceration of organized religion and the True Believer, generally speaking, it's very specifically an evisceration of Christianity and Christians. And, honestly, anyone else within range (hello Romans, Jews, assorted revolutionaries, spineless bureaucrats, etc.).

    But if you don't equate Brian with Jesus, B's followers with those of JC, and the whole enterprise from script to editing as very specifically a satire of Christianity--the Gospel, the organized church, the whole ball-of-wax--then you're simply rationalizing a means by which you can fundamentally miss the point.

    Yes, yes, alot of stuff about false idols and celebrity-obsession, liberal activism and Marxist revolutionaries, some prep-school lampooning and generously scatalogical humor thrown into the mix... but it's a satire of Christianity. And it fairly well calls into question the whole enterprise. How are we defining blasphemy anyway?
     
  6. Jeff Kuykendall

    Jeff Kuykendall Stunt Coordinator

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    Blasphemy is an attack on God; the Pythons did not intend to attack God with this film, only those who blindly follow without any kind of intelligent thought. Terry Jones and John Cleese have an ongoing debate about whether the film is heretical or not, though.

    I actually know a lot of Christians who love Life of Brian. Anyone who reacts to humor with hostility and fear is doing themselves no good. Ease up and have a laugh.

    On the other hand, I think it's important to self-analyze and take the criticisms seriously, rather than dismissing them through laughter.

    Brian, your girlfriend's reaction might have been one of fear. She was 13, after all, and seeing someone question religion can be frightening to someone at that age; i.e., someone who isn't used to having their beliefs challenged, someone who hasn't even finished high school. I don't know how I might have handled the film at that age, since I was very religious then (I'm not now). But by late high school/college, it perfectly fit my question-everything frame of mind. I think you have to reach an age where you're adult enough to accept that you might not be right about everything in the world, and then you let go of some of that insecurity about being wrong. Some people never get that far.

    But no, it's not blasphemous. The Pythons could have been taken to court in England if it was (Graham Chapman was taken to court for blasphemy because of a poem in a magazine he published); but no lawyer would have had a leg to stand on. It's offensive, perhaps, but not blasphemous. [​IMG]
     
  7. Jeff Kuykendall

    Jeff Kuykendall Stunt Coordinator

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    Rich, to address your point, every single Python has denied, at one point or another, equating Brian with Jesus. They had no quarrel with Jesus, only people so desperate for Messiahs that they grab the first one that comes along, and don't analyze who's doing the preaching, or even what the message is.
     
  8. Rich Malloy

    Rich Malloy Producer

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    And not that there's any resemblance at all between the two. Funny that people should see Brian and suddenly think "Jesus". Not sure how that confusion started.

    But, reconsidering, I see now that you're right: the Python's quarrel is with this Brian guy, the people who worship Brian, and any texts or icons associated with the false prophet, Brian (His shoe, my ass!). Nothing at all to do with Jesus/Christianity/the Gospels, and never was, and certainly isn't intended to be. How'd you get that idea anyway? [​IMG]

    One can be legally convicted of "blasphemy" in the UK?
     
  9. Brad Porter

    Brad Porter Screenwriter

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    I can't really judge whether the film is "blasphemous" because determination of that status seems to rely heavily on the particular religious beliefs that an individual practices. Your girlfriend is the only one who can determine her own view in this manner. You may or may not get her to revisit and discuss the film, but don't expect the argument that "the guys at the HTF don't think it's blasphemous" to carry any weight at all in your discussion. [​IMG] Her belief system is the judge and jury in this matter.

    The stoning scene certainly mocks religious authority and would be offensive to someone who subscribes to a Biblical inerrancy belief - he did say Jehovah after all. There are several parallel story elements which mirror the story of Jesus directly (born in a manger, performed "miracles", sacrificed by crucifixion, etc.). Saying that TLOB isn't about Jesus is like saying Citizen Kane isn't about William Randolph Hearst. Technically it isn't, but you'd have been foolish to argue with Hearst about whether he should have been offended. All of these parallel elements are directly attacked (Brian's mother was certainly no virgin, all of Brian's miracles were ordinary events that were overblown, the crucifixion is a song and dance number) in a manner that directly undermines the story of Christ. So it is my opinion that "true believer" Christians should be offended by the film, but since I am not a Christian I can't provide a justification as to why some of them claim not to be offended by it.


    If you take the position that it is possible to have such a thing as "properly placed" faith, then you might be able to argue this position. I would argue that the nature of "faith" would make it impossible to distinguish between the "properly placed" and "misplaced" varieties. I don't see how you can mock faith without mocking it universally.

    As with most religious arguments, I think this one is better left alone unless she specifically brings it up in the future. You will gain nothing by antagonizing her for the sake of keeping this one film. I'd suggest hiding it with your porn collection. [​IMG]

    Brad
     
  10. John CW

    John CW Supporting Actor

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    A few facts: The only direct reference to Jesus is when he's preaching to everyone.

    So the film says: Jesus existed (not a big point, I know), he was loved. That's about it.

    Of course it also infers that people were complete idiots back then and who they worshipped should not be taken seriously.

    Being an athiest I don't particuarly take that "point" seriously and I don't see, if a Christian is truly being honest with themselves, how anyone else can either.
     
  11. Brad Porter

    Brad Porter Screenwriter

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    Don't forget the arrival of the wise men at the Nativity and the "alms for an ex-leper" scene.
     
  12. andrew markworthy

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    Actually, there is another direct reference to Jesus - the leper curred by Jesus who complained that the Messiah had taken away his livelihood.

    There's a Brit angle to TLOB that perhaps you guys are unaware of. Whilst religion is deliberately avoided in American public schools it is often crammed down your throat at Brit schools (or at least it was, until about ten years ago). Utterly uninspired and dull religious services at the start of *every day* of school was enough to make generations of Brits either non-believers or at the very least to take a cynical view of religious belief and worship (cf. the parody of school assembly in The Meaning of Life, which I promise you is only a *slight* exaggeration). In many respects, the Pythons are blowing a raspberry at (sorry, I mean giving a Bronx cheer to) years of boredom at school assembly. In general, Brits have always been a little more relaxed about relgion than the USA. E.g. Creationism has never been a big issue over here, and televangelists and an obsession with the Apocalypse are very much a minority religious activity. The Pythons are really only playing on a natural cynicism about the *practice* of religion.

    Incidentally, will folks please distinguish between 'heresy' and 'blasphemy'? Heresy is an erroneous belief or practice, blasphemy is an intentional insult.
     
  13. Brian Thibodeau

    Brian Thibodeau Supporting Actor

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    Some interesting food for thought there, folks.

    I must admit, I've long understood how easily LIFE OF BRIAN could be taken as a satire of Christianity, as it draws virtually all of it's parallels to Christ and the story of Christianity, at least the historically provable elements of it anyways. It certainly doesn't concern itself with aspects of Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism and the other religions of the world in the same way it tweaks the whole Christian ethos. So I guess I can understand why staunch Christians would automatically get their knickers in a bunch. Similarly, I don't believe (nor will ever be convinced) that it's blasphemous as it doesn't insult or question the existence of God. Poking fun at Roman hypocracy, the infighting among political fringe groups and the timeless ability of people to find spirituality in just about anything hardly qualifies as blasphemy. I don't even think heresy applies.

    I too have to agree with John Cleese's commentary that the movie is largely about the dangers, and perhaps the absurdity, of having unquestioning faith in just about anything.

    As Francois pointed out, crucifixions were a common punishment of the time, so the crucifixion scene does not particularly offend me. Were Jesus to be shown singing a song on the cross, then even I'd be offended. Many films have made light of the political and religious persecution of people throughout history, if only to point out the utter insanity of it all (Mel Brooks' "Inquisition" number in HISTORY OF THE WORLD is a classic in my opinion).

    The fact that my girlfriend has been questioning her own faith over the last several years of her life, particularly after being raised NOT to question it, does give me hope, not that she'll stop believing, but that she'll find a way to rationalize, reconcile and balance those beliefs with her day-to-day life and the world around her. No easy task, that. I think cynisism is a healthy thing taken in the right doses, just as religious faith can have its benefits. I think she has become more aware of this the longer she has functioned in the world on her own, away from home. I purposely remain neutral in these matters so she can make those decisions for herself. "Unquestioning" belief in religion (and other things, like politicians, laws, etc.) left me a long time ago, but I will never force anyone to join me in my thinking. I really believe, down deep, most people come to question just about everything as they get older. It's vital.

    You're right, Mike, my girlfriend is becoming more open-minded and reasonable with each passing day, much to her own surprise sometimes, I think. She was far too young to see that film, considering her circumstances at that stage of her life. Impressions made at that age can stick with a person for a long time. I had no problem with LIFE OF BRIAN at the same age precisely because my family had grown passive about religion and allowed me to make up my own mind (a bit young to do so, perhaps, but...). Admittedly, I understood the film better with subsequent viewings and still draw new things from it with each revisitation (years apart, of course).

    I hope someday we might be able to sit down, watch the film with the benefit of age, and perhaps discuss it in a mature, informed way. Should she still see it the way she did when she was thirteen, then, as Brad suggested, I'll hide it with my porn. [​IMG] ("But honey, do you know how difficult it is to find mainstream DVDs with MULTIPLE ANGLES nowadays?!?") [​IMG]
     
  14. Jeff Kuykendall

    Jeff Kuykendall Stunt Coordinator

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    Yes, Brian's life parallels Jesus. That doesn't mean they're making fun of Jesus. The project was instigated as a parody of religious epics, so the structure of Jesus' life was a natural one to take, even if it's pretty loosely followed.

    Yes, there is satire of religion--specifically in the shoe/gourd business, which parodies the creation of denominations over minutae in scripture, and the subsequent heated arguments and bitter divide over minutae. Yeah, that's a definite attack on the irrelevance of Christian denominations. But it isn't an attack on Jesus or Christians in general. That would have been a completely different film, and I don't think it would have been one that the Pythons would have wanted to make. (As interviews with the Pythons tell, the title was originally going to be "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory," until they all read the Bible, decided they had no problem with what Jesus was saying, and instead decided to go after those who failed to live up to Jesus' tenets through, you know, infighting and Crusades and Inquisitions and what have you.)

    The point is that Brian doesn't want to be the Messiah, tells them this, and it has no effect; they follow him anyway. The point is that they are following without applying intelligent thought--that's what the Pythons are attacking.

    The key thing is that Jesus comes off rather well in the movie. But at the sermon on the mount, no one can hear him.

    Using this movie as something to use to attack any Christian who crosses your path--"Ha! This movie makes fun of you guys! You guys are all idiots, see?"--is just as bad as those Christians who condemn a movie without ever watching it. Personally, I think this movie's brilliant and it's one of my favorites. Yes, it's a religious satire, but it doesn't condemn spirituality or faith. Just when those things are misplaced by an unthinking zealotry.
     

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