Well slap me sideways and call me Jolson. I’d plum forgotten Our Lord John Cleese‘s first appearance in “Life of Brian” was in Blackface.
The decision, this past week, for British cinemas to give up showing “The Lady of Heaven,” an Islamic history lesson that bent over backwards to not offend, because of protests at the theaters by British Muslims…who hadn’t seen the bloody film, had a local Archbishop having a bit of a laugh at Islam’s “‘Life of Brian’ Moment.” And it gave me a craving to see Monty Python’s big screen masterpiece again.
The idea that the Catholic man in the big funny hat is getting at is a valid one. That in a free society, examining, critiquing and even mocking of belief systems has to be fair game. Islam doesn’t tolerate criticism. And unlike Scientology, there is no call to “Lawyer Up” in the scriptures of that Middle Eastern religion. So, protests and the implicit threat of violence will have to do.
“Life of Brian” was protested so vehemently when it came out that members of Monty Python were called upon to debate Big Thinkers and Great Theologians of the Day in the UK. And that, in turn, led to sketches mocking the idea of comedians having to debate allegedly serious people over a seriously silly film.
I don’t remember much in the way of protest in the U.S. when the film came out, unlike the picketing that greeted Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” some years later anyway.
Rewatching “Brian” now, one really does get the feeling that the oft-repeated phrase “They could NEVER film that today” absolutely applies here.
“Life of Brian,” a Jesus send-up about a Jewish (possibly half-Roman) contemporary of Jesus named Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) having many hapless run-ins with the Romans and mistaken for the Messiah by his fellow Hebrews, intentionally or unintentionally sets out to offend almost everyone.
There are gay jokes, Blackface gags, and every Jewish (and Italian) “nose” insult and racial slur is trotted out for one and all. Gender dysphoria wasn’t discussed openly back then, except by the Pythons.
“I want to be a woman. I want you to call me ‘Loretta’ from now on.”
Eric Idle was the only Python so convincing in drag I was sure he was “the gay one” well into the 1980s, British boarding school “experiences” and all that.
Speech impediments mocked by Michael Palin? “Biggus Dickus” and his bride, “Incontinentia Buttocks” wouldn’t have it.
Brian’s father was ROMAN?
“You mean you were RAPED?”
“Well, at first, yes,” Mum (Terry Jones) sheepishly confesses.
But in a movie where there was a Jerusalem Colosseum in which they slaughtered loin-clothed prisoners with gladiators for “entertainment” — but only at “Children’s Matinees” — everything and anything is on the table for laughs.
What stands out about this Terry Jones/Terry Gilliam film — Jones did the directing, Gilliam co-wrote it and gave it the “authentic but goofy” look that sold the conceit here, and in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — all these years later is the texture, the pacing and the glorious pedantry of a bunch of Ox-Bridge wits, having a go at comedy.
Watch it with the closed captioning on or read the screenplay. Arcane words and usages decorate a script already riddled with Britishisms of the day.
“And the bezan shall be huge and black…”
And then there’s the hilarious schoolboy prank of having a pedantic British-bobby-as-school-teacher Roman centurion (Cleese) chew out, correct and TEACH Brian the proper way to write “Romans Go Home!” in Latin, as graffiti.
” What’s this, then? ‘Romanes Eunt Domus’? ‘People called Romanes they go the house’?”
“Imperative” and “Vocative plural of ‘annus'” and “dative” and “accusative” and “locative” are questioned and drilled, and we’re left to wonder how this lot ever learned to write and communicate at all, much less conquer the world.
“Now, write it out a hundred times.”
The way this picture still skips along, sketch to sketch, its a wonder it ever had the chance to offend. But it did. And the fact that you don’t see it — edited or not — on most classic film or even rerun film channels to this day suggests it still does.
Did it end Christianity, or do as much damage to the Catholic Church as a single one of the thousands of sex abuse scandals that dog it? Was Protestantism brought to heel by its withering wit? No.
But the reaction to “The Lady of Heaven” or for that matter, to assorted Muhammad-mocking cartoons in “Charlie Hebdo” and elsewhere remind us that there’s never been a big screen comedy that poked fun at Islam’s origins, even if there have been movies ridiculing Islamic fanaticism (“Four Lions”) and the alleged humorlessness of the culture attached to the religion (“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”).
As daring as some comedy is these days, there’s not a comic nor a troupe to match Monty Python’s 1970s audacity or for that matter bravery in tackling ticklish subjects like religion.
Then again, they knew “The Spanish Inquisition” and “Church Police” sketches hadn’t gotten anyone killed when they went down this road.
Rating: R, violence, nudity and lots of profanity
Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland, Sue Davies-Jones, Kenneth Colley and Spike Milligan.
Credits: Directed by Terry Jones, scripted by Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Terry Gilliam. A Warner Bros./Orion Pictures Handmade Films release on Amazon, Netflix, other streamers
Running time: 1:34