Monty Python’s Life of Brian, re-released on its 25th anniversary as an antidote to The Passion of the Christ, is a single-joke satire of organized religion, including Hollywood’s. Set in Jerusalem A.D. 33, Terry Jones’s Sunday-school travesty follows the career of the unintentionally messianic Brian of Nazareth. It’s a hearty burlesque in which the three wise men signal their presence with a discreet belch and lisping Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin) can’t stop babbling about his “fwiend” Biggus Dickus.
Graham Chapman is appropriately nonplussed in the Gene Wilder-ish role of Brian while, tricked out in fake beards, the rest of the gang (John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle) pop up as centurions, prophets, terrorists from the People’s Front of Judea, and wiseass members of the rabble. The best lines are often overheard in the general tumult. Cries of “Oh Lord, I am afflicted by a bald patch” and “We’ll nail some sense into him” follow Brian as he careens through the casbah, pursued by eager acolytes.
As Mel Brooks demonstrated the capacity to transform almost any occasion into the premise for a Jewish joke, so the Python strategy is to turn everything into a neo-cockney street-corner squabble. (Director Jones hams shamelessly as Brian’s harridan mother: ” ‘E’s not the Messiah—’e’s a very naughty boy.”) Brooks is a more inspired vulgarian, although Brian‘s climactic crucifixion number does bid for comparison to “Springtime for Hitler.” If the movie has a moral, however, it’s not that showbiz rules but that the crowd wants to believe—no matter what.
Brian‘s reception is a story in itself: The original backer, British media giant EMI, got cold feet and the production was saved by George Harrison, who underwrote the entire movie and has a bit part. (What was it John Lennon said about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus?) Hilariously, the filmmakers deemed the U.S.A. a more receptive place than the U.K. to premiere the movie. Brian, rated R and opening the same week as Apocalypse Now, scored a perfect trifecta—denounced as blasphemy by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the Lutheran Council (“a disgraceful assault”), and the Rabbinical Alliance of America (“foul, disgusting”).
Theaters were picketed, and Brian was banned in parts of Georgia, Maine, and Bay Ridge; it was yanked from a South Carolina bijou after a phone call from Senator Strom Thurmond (who never saw the movie). Fortunately or not, 1979 was not an election year. Still, as the director of the Catholic Conference’s Office for Film and Broadcasting joked in Variety: “I’d love to know what the Democratic National Committee thinks of The Life of Brian.”