Hollywood's latest counterpunch to the impact of Mel Gibson's sects-and-violence blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ, is the re-release of Monty Python's masterpiece, The Life of Brian. Henry Jaglom, who is handling Brian's Second Coming, says, "For [those] who are ... repelled by Gibson's violent, bigoted polemic, we offer a much needed dose of humor as an antidote ... ."
Well, OK. Except that The Life of Brian is more than a lighthearted time-out from the volcanic emotions stirred up by The Passion. It satirizes the dark and dangerous reasons why works like The Passion get made.
The Life of Brian takes the only approach possible to such explosive material: oblique, referential, and, above all, well-informed. Brian is based on solid biblical scholarship. The Passion isn't. Gibson has admitted as much, claiming that it's based solely on the New Testament as interpreted by his guiding light, the Holy Spirit. (A common cop-out of film directors -- blame the screenwriter.) Unsurprisingly, his ultra-literal portrayal of the Jews, though it's per the Jewish writers of the Gospels, has gotten him accused of anti-Semitism. The Life of Brian -- written by six non-Jewish Englishmen -- presents the Jews as conspirators, fanatics, hysterics, bigots, whores, and cross-dressers, but, in 25 years, has rarely encountered the same accusation. Sometimes liberal is better than literal.
It's the same with blasphemy. The Life of Brian attacks the core biblical crime in a hilarious sequence where Jewish women with fake beards stone a hysterical (in every sense) high priest played by John Cleese. Where Brian is fall-down funny, The Passion is merely ludicrous. Its endless flogging sequence makes you wonder if Gibson thinks Christ's most famous words were, "Take, beat, for this is my body."
When The Life of Brian came out in 1979, most of the outrage came from Christians, who condemned it -- natch -- as blasphemy. Actually, the movie is respectful toward Christian icons: The Nativity is shown in discreet long-shot (with halos); a solemn Jesus (no halo) gives the Sermon on the Mount. What's funny are Brian's moronic listeners ("blessed are the cheesemakers?") and the bickering revolutionaries of the People's Front of Judea ("it's the meek that are the problem!").
Director Terry Jones told me recently: "Brian isn't blasphemous. It's heretical." The Pythons set out, he says, to ridicule "the propensity of religion to interpret the good man's words and works in order to gain power." Jones' favorite sequence occurs when Brian is anointed a reluctant messiah by the Jerusalem mob, who see his every action -- losing a sandal, giving away a gourd -- as proof of his divinity. "See, he has given us a shoe!" "No -- cast off the shoe! Follow the gourd!" We know that within a generation, the Shoe-ists and Gourd-ists will be killing each other.
Jones gives us an eerily authentic look at the origins of fanaticism. And the Pythons are so secure in their middle-class, Home Counties personae that the question of whether Jews are being caricatured -- so evident in the Mel-o-drama -- doesn't arise. These Israelites are solidly Church of England. Michael Palin as the Roman officer in charge of a hundred-odd crucifixions (including Brian's) is pricelessly Anglican: "Such a senseless waste of human life! Oh, well. Out the door. Line on the left. One cross each."
The Life of Brian casts a genial light on just how ugly and fanatic -- and of our time -- The Passion is. Gibson's movie is less a work of devotion than a call to arms. At other times of upheaval in Christian history, a hideously suffering Jesus was a sign of trouble brewing. Behold what happened to our savior -- someone's going to pay. During the Crusades, preachers preached Christ's agonies; inflamed crusaders often turned on the Jews in their march toward the Holy Land -- frustrating the Church, which wanted the Jews' hatred fixed on the Saracens. Christus Agonistes has always gone hand in hand with the glazed-eye hope that ghastly torments await numberless sinners. Small wonder that Mel's audience is also devouring the genocidal fantasies of the final Left Behind book.
Not to worry, though. As Eric Idle sings (from his cross): "Always look on the bright side of life / Life is quite absurd / Death's the final word! / You must always face the curtain with a bow / So -- always look on the bright s-i-i-de of life!"