Movies for the Resistance: Monty Python’s The Life of Brian

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Sue Jones-Davies
Directed by: Terry Jones
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1979


So yeah. Roy Moore.

For most of the rational parts of the country, the recent eruption of sexual scandals has provoked a combination of horror and soul-searching. In Alabama, however, the defiant campaign of gibbering troglodyte Roy Moore stands out not only for its sheer ugliness, but for the way his evangelical constituents have cheerfully excused his monstrosity because reasons. We’re all accustomed to the casual hypocrisy of the religious right – going back to the televangelist scandals of the 1980s at the very least – but their lack of contrition or self-reflection in the light of objective, established human evil is shocking even for them.

The movies – and indeed art of any kind – always made an easy target for the religious right. Fundamentalism thrives on blind acceptance, and creativity of any sort involves questions, challenging conventions, and looking at the world in new ways. Hollywood’s decadence and moral failings provide an easy straw man to distract from their own horrific failings, and every few years some new movie draws their ire for increasingly ridiculous reasons. (Disney’s recent live-action Beauty and the Beast, with its not-so-subtle homosexual subtext, is only the most recent example.)

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is an archetypical example of their misplaced piety and refusal to acknowledge objective facts. The film produced an uproar when it was first released in 1979 – with the now-familiar pattern of boycotts and pious finger-pointing – and more than any other target of fundamentalist ire, it lays bare the self-serving double standard of Moore and his ilk.

Most cinematic targets of the Christian right either evince some kind of “amoral” subject matter such as sex or violence, or else treat religious topics in a manner that they disapprove of (The Last Temptation of Christ comes immediately to mind). The Life of Brian dabbles in that – in the typically irreverent Python style – but its target largely lies elsewhere. It very clearly and carefully separates Jesus Christ from the equation. The film opens with Christ preaching on the Mount and our hapless hero Brian (Graham Chapman) asking his mother to attend. They make it exceedingly clear that they are NOT attacking or mocking Christ, and that their narrative has nothing to do with his teachings. As Eric Idle said at the time, you can’t mock Christ’s philosophy. It’s good moral philosophy.

Their targets are his followers, or more strictly, the ones who let their fanaticism get in the way of adhering to that philosophy. Funny how that ticks off actual fanatics something fierce.

The movie really kicks into high gear when Brian finds himself the most reluctant of messiahs: thrust more or less against his will into a position of moral authority and haltingly attempting to guide his creepily eager followers in some kind of positive direction. He fails, miserably, but his efforts form the core of the movie’s humor and some of its funniest sequences.

Brian draws inspiration from Jesus, but he’s not especially good at implementing it, less because of his own good intentions than because those listening aren’t really interested. They have their own agenda, and are wrapped up in their own needs, which comes into conflict with the message being delivered.

That, the film assures us, is an all-too-human failing. Fanaticism certainly predates Christ, and the savagery that accompanies it remains a core part of our condition. The notion of moral wrongdoing – of perceived transgression against The Good – ironically becomes a means of committing great evil. Here, too, the Pythons’ instincts strike home, not only in Brian’s miserable failure to imbue his followers with some basic decency, but in the self-apparent barbarism that he’s fighting against. (Witness the execution scene, in which a bloodthirsty crowd really really REALLY wants to stone a man to death, but needs some flimsy excuse in order to make it acceptable.)

Religion isn’t the only sacred cow the Pythons skewer here, of course. Political power – always an easy target – receives a thorough savaging, from Michael Palin’s hysterically inept Pontius Pilate to the People’s Front of Judea (seemingly evoked every time the left starts squabbling amongst themselves).

During these sequences, the film moves to more traditional comedy, pointing out how inept the people in charge are and why we really can’t depend on them when we need them. But they’d targeted such figures before without engendering much controversy (well, no more than normal).

It was the addition of religion that set the fundies off: the perception that Python was mocking something sacred and therefore deserved public lambasting. They missed the obvious truth that they were engaging in the same bloodlust as the film’s bearded women at the stoning, but were they capable of such insight, they never would have spoken up at all. In truth, it’s the Pythons themselves that they disapprove of, and possibly the very notion of comedy: the iconoclasm, the need to punch upward, the general mocking of authority figures, and our own human proclivity for foolishness. An overt religious satire simply gave them the barest precepts of moral justification to cling to, and from that oyster they simmered a stew that they continue to greedily devour.

They’ve long since abandoned any pretext that they need to do more. They simply aren’t capable of looking the Gorgon in the face. They require a fig leaf, any fig leaf, to prevent themselves from acknowledging their own monstrosity, and now even that flimsy justification has begun to fray. So the Roy Moores of the world become the REAL victims in their minds, and the targets of his monstrous appetites suffer as a result. Christ’s teachings are actively abandoned in the name of Christ, and thus do his most vocal followers actively embody the evil they claim to decry.

Somewhere, Brian Cohen is shaking his head and wondering how it got so far.

The Pythons are smart enough to realize that there’s no easy solution to such idiocy, of course. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious right convinces them of nothing, save perhaps to double down and insist that, oh say, a child molesting monster is actually a righteous follower of Christ. Their only real answer is a gentle admonishment to look at our own hypocrisies and try to do better.

The film closes with Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” conducted as Brian and a gaggle of fellows await death on the cross. It’s a lovely bit of absurdism, but also a reminder – quite serious – to take joy when and where you can. Especially if it means laughing at those who hate you, or who claim some flimsy moral superiority over you. “At least you’re not one of them,” it tells us. If that’s not a reason to keep punching, nothing is.

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