In the beginning, Monty Python created Life of Brian.
And in this 1979 tale, the Pythoners -- Graham Chapman (Brian), John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones (who also directed) -- begat some of the best satire ever put to celluloid. Brian of Nazareth, born in the stall next to Jesus, is constantly mistaken for the Messiah. He falls in with the extremist, Rome-hating People's Front of Judea after getting the hots for Judith, its sole female member.
The satire overfloweth. "What Jesus fails to appreciate," says one of Cleese's characters after hearing Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, "is that it's the meek who're the problem." Women dressed as men stone a man to death for saying "Jehovah." A Roman officer painstakingly corrects Brian's grammar in his anti-Roman graffiti. "Former" lepers, cured by Jesus, still beg for money. Later, the fumbling Brother Brian, still mistaken for the Messiah, is crucified while he's serenaded by chipper fellow-crucifee Eric Idle, singing the now-famous "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
In trademark Python cheekiness, the rerelease of the 1979 Brian is timed to counter the fervor of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. Jones thinks now's a better time than ever to show the film. "It's a shameless commercial opportunity on our part," he says from his home in England.
Just as Gibson had to self-produce Passion after major studios passed, initial financing for Brian was dropped when studio EMI decided the script was too blasphemous. To the rescue came Beatle George Harrison who, being a Python fan, anted up $4 million to produce the film later deemed heretical by religious groups in England, Ireland and the United States.
Brianattacks the hypocrisy of organized religion and its followers, the zaniness of Hollywood blockbuster Bible films and, on a deeper level, the evils of a fundamentalist ruling class that legislates morality and manufactures hysteria to a yielding public. A stretch, perhaps, but Jones, who regularly debunks medieval myths on the History Channel and the BBC, sees little difference between today's Bush/Blair regime and the days of 14th-century England.
"Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard II. Then Arundel came back and took back the Archbishop of Canterbury. They were both unpopular and shouldn't have been there," he says. "They did exactly what people do now. Instead of declaring a war on terrorism, they declared war on heresy -- find a common enemy and make people scared. In their case, they blighted the English public license of authority for 100 years, with the clamps and the intellectual restraints that went on. And it's the same thing here: Blair and Bush are trying to frighten everybody. All the stuff we're meant to be defending -- the land of the free, constitutional rights -- they're the people who're destroying them, right, left and center. And they do it by persuading everybody to be scared."
Maybe in this day of renewed zealotry and fanaticism, we need the irreverence of Monty Python. So, Brother Terry, can the biting satire of Brian teach us to take a stand against tyrannical witch-hunts and extremism? "I sincerely hope so," he says in a tone as dry as gin. "We definitely need your money."