Monty Python

Why the Controversial ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ Is Actually the Easter Movie We Need

Beneath the so-called blasphemy is an astute assessment of the Christian faith.

On the surface, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is an irreverent take on the life of Christ, criticized as a comedy rife with blasphemy and sacrilege, resulting in the film being banned in numerous countries (we’ll get to that). But as any Monty Python fan knows, there is a far deeper level to the film that purposefully avoids direct correlation with Christ, shines a light on the hypocrisy, in-fighting and absurdity of his followers, and elements that border on the prophetic. Life of Brian speaks volumes about Christianity, including a brilliantly simple summation of what Christ’s sacrifice means to the faithful. The Passion of the Christ may be the film that more accurately depicts the events of Easter, but Life of Brian is the Easter film we need.

The Genesis of ‘Life of Brian’

Graham Chapman as Brian in Monty Python's Life of Brian
Image via Cinema International Corporation

While promoting Monty Python and the Holy GrailEric Idle joked that their next film would be called Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory. The joke piqued the interest of the troupe, who realized that there had never been a comedy about Jesus. They started going down the rabbit hole, with their initial plan to lampoon Jesus outright. Yet the more they read and learned about him, the more they realized it wouldn’t work. Michael Palin was quoted as saying, “It was quite obvious that there was very little to ridicule in Jesus’s life, and therefore we were onto a loser. Jesus was a very straight, direct man making good sense, so we decided it would be a very shallow film if it was just about [him].” The focus shifted instead to a 13th disciple named Brian, perpetually missing out on the events of the New Testament by mere moments. Finally, they settled on what would become the working premise, a man named Brian (Graham Chapman) who had no affiliation with Jesus at all, but just happened to live in Judea around the same time, and would inadvertently be hailed as the Messiah by fanatics. The Pythons’ steered clear of targeting Jesus or his teachings, with the satire aiming instead at political militants and the sheep mentality of the masses

‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ Is a Classic British Comedy

Brian and other crucifixion victims carry their crosses in Monty Pyton's Life of Brian
Image via Cinema International Pictures

The film begins with the three wise men entering a stable, in awe of the prophesied child. Only that child is in the stable next door. This is Brian, born the same night, who would grow up to be an idealistic man, who resents the Roman occupation of Judea. He’s inspired to join the People’s Front of Judea, a faction that hates the Romans as much as they hate the Judean People’s Front. He’s tasked with painting anti-Roman slogans on Pilate’s (Palin) palace, only to be corrected for his appalling Latin grammar by a Roman officer and forced to paint the corrected slogans 100 times. Brian then takes part in a plot by the PFJ to kidnap Pilate’s wife (a plan that the despised JPF also had).

Captured by palace guards, Brian makes his escape while the guards are doubled over in laughter at Pilate’s speech impediment when he speaks of his friends Biggus Dickus and Incontentia Buttocks. He’s chased through the streets, ends up in a spaceship (don’t ask), and manages to evade his pursuers in the plaza by standing on a box like the prophets, spouting bits and pieces of the sermons of Jesus. He draws the attention of a small audience, who look to learn more and begin following him, eventually falling into two groups, the followers of the gourd, and the followers of the sandal. Events culminate in Brian being crucified, with his slow and painful death made more joyful with the rousing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” that ends the film.

‘Life of Brian’ Is Protested Regardless

Eric Idle as Harry in Monty Python's Life of Brian
Image via Cinema International Pictures

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Life of Brian was controversial upon release despite the efforts of Python to stay away from it. Countries around the world banned the film. Malaysia banned it as blasphemous. Ireland banned it for the same reason, and didn’t lift the ban until 1987. It was banned under the apartheid rule of South Africa for, again, blasphemous content. Singapore banned it for “inappropriate” religious content (so, blasphemous content). Most amusingly, the film was banned in Norway until 1980 for jokes deemed offensive to religious people. Neighboring Sweden, who did not ban the film, made light of the ban by releasing the film with the tagline “The film so funny that it got banned in Norway”. Multiple religious groups across the US targeted the film, picketing theaters with placards confirming the comedy troupes association with the Devil: Python = Serpent = Satan. It’s so obvious. As is usually the case, the publicity only brought more people to see the film, prompting John Cleese to say, “They actually made me rich. I feel we should send them a crate of champagne or something.”

Completely Missing the Point of ‘Life of Brian’

By carrying out its bans and protests, the outraged faithful only made the point of the film glaringly obvious. The People’s Front of Judea’s vendetta against the Judean People’s Front, and the followers divided between the Holy Gourd and the Holy Sandal (Shoe?) are a scathing mockery of the hypocrisy of denominational superiority, divisions within the church that follow the same God but deride one another for their differences in doing so. Brian’s followers growing in number, hanging on his every word as a truth, a jab at the mentality of the horde.

Life of Brian‘s most impressive feat is, as alluded to above, the simple summation of the Christian faith. Easter is the time in the Christian calendar where the sufferings and death of Jesus on the cross gets cast aside with the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning, heralding the arrival of a joyful new tomorrow. Python brilliantly cuts to the good part, bringing the upbeat, catchy chorus of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to the cross, juxtaposing the Christian belief of Christ opening the gates of Heaven with the pathway to get there.

To assume the satirical bite of Monty Python is all on the surface of their work is to misunderstand that which makes Monty Python so adept at satire, and the lessons of cult classic Life of Brian run much deeper than its supposed blasphemy into an astute assessment of the Christian faith.

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