Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Likely to offend?

Director: Terry Jones

Writers: Graham Chapman, John Cleese

Stars: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin

Runtime: 1h 34min

“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”.Forty-two years ago, the Monty Python team released their most controversial film, Life of Brian. The opposition to it from conservative religious groups was so strong, the film was banned in the Irish Republic and Norway and in many British cities. TV personality Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark, appeared on television opposite John Cleese to denounce the film as ‘tenth-rate’ and blasphemous. They predicted that it would soon be forgotten.

In retrospect, a lot of this opposition was misplaced. This was not an attack on the person of Christ or on Christianity; the team decided early on that they would not target Jesus but set their film in the tumultuous time of his birth, first century Judea under brutal Roman occupation. My own church in Belfast has even shown it in our regular monthly film club.

The film stands up well more than four decades after its release. It’s quite possible that it could be the subject of bans or cancellation if it were to be released today; attacked not by the conservative religious right for blasphemy but by the regressive faux-left for the modern secular equivalents of blasphemy; ableism, transphobia, and mocking people with speech defects. The scene where Stan (Eric Idle) wants to become a woman called Loretta and have babies causing the PFJ members to debate supporting his/her right to have babies is a classic. Today, I can imagine trigger warnings on the BBC if it were to be screened again on a mainstream channel.

That said, the film is still screamingly funny. It tells the story of Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman); a hen-pecked mummy’s boy who tries to join an anti-Roman political group. After escaping from captivity when an attack on the Roman occupiers is botched, he is mistaken for the Messiah and followed by adoring crowds who hang on his every word.Much of the satire deals with how religious and political factions can emerge and religious and political sectarianism can grow. Brian drops his gourd and loses a sandal; his disciples divide into gourdists and sandalists. Then there’s the bitter rivalry between the Judean People’s Front and Reg’s (John Cleese) People’s Front of Judea. “the only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.” The ‘splitters’. When Brian is arrested, the PFJ goes into immediate debates and discussions. When he’s crucified, they march determinedly towards his cross… and then read out a statement to him in solidarity with his sacrifice.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian may not really say much about first-century Judea but it still has a lot to be said about twenty-first century Britain. Brian is not the Messiah; he’s a naughty, naughty boy. Watch it while you still can. And remember, always look on the bright side of life.

Reviewed by David Kerr

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