Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"The film so funny it was banned in Norway"

The Beatles were part of, not one, but two Jesus controversies. The first and more infamous arose in 1966 after John boldly ventured that the Fab Four were more popular than the Son of God. The statement provoked a bitter backlash in the U.S. and dogged John for many years. The second "Jesus controversy" unfolded well after The Beatles had broken up, and it only involved George (and even then, somewhat indirectly). It took the form of a movie that, since its release in 1979, has often been hailed as one of the greatest comedies in cinematic history: Monty Python's Life of Brian.
In 1978, George came to the rescue of Life of Brian. Just days before director Terry Jones was to begin filming, EMI Films pulled funding due to unease about the movie's content, which consists partly of religious satire. (Plot: the titular Brian is born next to Jesus and gets mistaken for him.) George caught wind of this and - being rich, generous, and a friend and fan of the Python troupe - formed a production company called Handmade Films to finance the project. At one point, George said that he simply "wanted to see the movie." So much so, in fact, that he mortgaged his house to secure the funds. Not only did he get to see Life of Brian, he also made a cameo appearance in it. He played Mr. Papadopoulos, "owner of the Mount."
When the rest of the world saw Life of Brian, accusations of blasphemy rained down on the Pythons. From Norway and Sweden to the U.K. and the U.S., it was debated, picketed and even banned - a warmup act of sorts for The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. The Pythons had the final laugh, though. As often happens with such controversies, the extra attention drove up ticket sales, and today Life of Brian is widely considered a classic.
I mention all of this because a) I've been trying to write more about George lately; and b) I watched Life of Brian over the weekend. I had seen it before, but this time I was old enough to truly appreciate it. It's uproarious. From Brian's haggish mother to the hopping "ex-leper" to the People's Front of Judea to Pontius Pilate's rhotacism, the gags never misfire. Is the film offensive? From one perspective, of course. It's full of swearing and off-color humor. Is it blasphemous? I would say no. I think it nimbly tiptoes around such sins. The only scene that shows Christ is handled tastefully, and I can't recall actual Christian doctrine coming up even once. By explicitly referencing the Gospels but keeping the narrative askew of Christ, the Pythons tempt you into thinking that what's onscreen is blasphemous. Perhaps they even want you to take the bait, only to realize that it's just a comedy you're watching. In fact, the movie's most sustained and stinging line of satire is directed at protest movements. The subplot involving the People's Front of Judea (and the Judean People's Front, the Judean Popular People's Front and the Popular Front of Judea) is hilarious. As is the whole movie. Kudos to George for backing a winner.