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Passion Of The Python

Cheeky satire resurrected for theaters


The anniversary re-release of 1979's Monty Python's Life of Brian descended on theaters like divine grace. After the unholy hype, fervent arguments and on-screen tortures of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Brian's 25-year-old religious satire comes as a blessed relief, like sneaking off for dirty jokes and beer after a blood-and-thunder sermon at Sunday mass.

Ex-Python Terry Jones explains the deep, theological motives that resurrected Brian. "It's just shameless commercial opportunism," says Jones, who directed the film and dons drag as Mandy, the title character's nagging mother. "We saw the opportunity that Mel's Passion created and thought, "Why not cash in on it?' I actually hadn't realized it was the 25th anniversary, but that makes [the re-release] look more respectable."

In a telephone conversation, Jones presents himself as something of a baffled bystander to the troupe's creative decisions and the controversy that surrounded Brian's initial release in 1979. The film was inspired by an offhand remark by Eric Idle while promoting the group's first feature film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "I wasn't there, but they were talking about what we'd do next, and Eric came up with Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory as a title. Everyone thought that was a good idea, so by the time I heard about it, it was a fait accompli."

No fan of biblical costume dramas, the decision disappointed Jones at first. But as he re-read the Gospels and researched Jewish and Roman history, "It very quickly became clear that the area of comedy was not really Christ. It was the fact that somebody comes along and says great things about peace and loving each other, and for the next 2,000 years, people kill and torture each other because they can't decide how he said it, or how they ought to venerate him, or whether they should wear hats when they do it or not. It's ridiculous, really."

Although the film repeatedly distinguishes the actual Jesus from Brian, a nobody in Nazareth mistaken for the Messiah, the Pythons knew the subject matter might agitate some religious leaders. "When we were writing it, I remember saying, "Some religious crackpot might take potshots at us.' I thought the thing that would unsettle people was the tone of the film."

In fact, people became upset even before shooting started: Film production company EMI pulled funding within days before Brian's crew was scheduled to leave for Morocco. But just as Mel Gibson virtually financed Passion himself, so did Brian rely on the largesse of a deep-pocketed celebrity. Idle's friend George Harrison raised $4 million to get Brian made. "I remember that his business manager, Dennis O'Brian, was a bit nervous during screenings," Jones says. "About 10 years later, I was doing an interview with George, and he mentioned that he'd put his house up for collateral for Brian. So that's why they were so nervous. I was amazed, because I thought, being a Beatle, he could just afford to do it."

Compared to the graphic violence of Passion, Brian seems genteel -- it even caps off the mass crucifixions with a catchy musical number, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." The film's nudity and profanity ("How shall we fuck off, oh Lord?") mark it as more risque than most comedies in the cineplex nowadays. And upon its release, religious groups such as the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility branded it as sacrilegious, a charge Jones disputes: "It's heretical but it's not blasphemous." Brian faced boycotts in the American South (including the Carolinas) and was banned outright in parts of England.

Jones sheepishly admits that he hasn't seen The Passion of the Christ yet, but hopes to capitalize on any future success of Gibson's film. "For the DVD, we'll have to have Life of Brian dubbed into Aramaic," says Jones. "That is a good idea."

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