April 4, 2004

Crucifixion humor? ‘Passion’ spurs Python rerun

There’s nothing funny about a crucifixion, right? It’s a given. Like there’s nothing humorous about a forest fire, chocolate is yummy, and baby bunnies are cute.

Crucifixion. Nothing to giggle about. Serious business.

Unless . . . maybe . . . the crucifixion in question is purely fictional — farcical even — and orchestrated by, say, the members of the storied English comic geniuses of Monty Python, the folks that also brought you the killer bunny.

In the case of the crucifixion scene at the end of the 1979 film “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” what in reality would be the torturous execution of a couple dozen men and women turns into a musical number.

“Always look on the bright side of life,” Pythonian Eric Idle’s character (“lead singer crucifee”) sings as he hangs on the cross, smiling.

“Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath,” Idle sings, as the other crucifees form a kind of macabre kick line.

Tasteless? Horrifying? Inappropriate? Blasphemous even?

Depends on your point of view.

That’s the thing about film or any kind of art. Different eyes see different things.

The makers of “Life of Brian” have just decided to re-release the film in the theaters next month. They’re betting that at least some of the 45 million or so of us who have seen the deadly serious “The Passion of the Christ” might be ready for a little religious satire on the big screen.

I know I am.

“We couldn’t quite figure out how and when to do it and then along came Mel, and it seemed like the perfect antidote,” John Goldstone was telling me the other day from his home in London.

Goldstone produced “Life of Brian,” as well as Monty Python’s classics “Holy Grail” and “Meaning of Life” films.

“It has such relevance today. And it gives people a real alternative to consider, and compare, maybe. It’s really a funny movie.

“We’re billing it as the second coming of ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian,’ ” he said. “I think that sort of says it, really.”

The film is set to make its glorious appearance, if you will, in New York City and Los Angeles theaters on April 30 and will come to Chicago theaters soon after, Goldstone said.

For those who aren’t familiar with “Life of Brian,” here’s a synopsis.

Brian Cohen (aka Brian of Nazareth and/or Brian that is Called Brian), played by the late Pythonian Graham Chapman, is a first-century Jewish man living with his mother, Mandy Cohen (Terry Jones), in Israel down the block from Jesus Christ. Goldstone describes Brian as “the boy next door that never made it.”

The film makes it clear that Brian isn’t Jesus, although The Man from Nazareth does make two appearances in the film. One as an infant in the Bethlehem manger after the Three Wise Men mistake Brian for the Savior they’re looking for, repossess their gold, frankincense and myrrh from single mom Mandy and give them to Mary and Joseph, instead.

Jesus’ second appearance comes a little later in the film when he is delivering the Sermon on the Mount.

Brian and his mom are way back in the crowd and can’t hear him properly. There’s a very funny exchange when a man in the crowd thinks Jesus says “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” But I digress.

Brian. Not the savior. Right.

So, Jerusalem is awash with so-called prophets, revolutionaries (both spiritual and political), and other opportunists looking to cash in on the hunger (both spiritual and physical) of the masses. Brian, who is a snack vendor at the local Roman gladiator events, is not a particularly religious Jew. He is, however, rabidly anti-Roman, and hooks up with a bumbling group of local insurrectionists, The People’s Liberation Front of Judea, led by a guy named Reg (John Cleese).

He bungles his first mission — to write “Romans go home” in Latin on the palace wall. His Latin is a little rusty, and he ends up writing the equivalent of “People called Romans they go to house,” which a Roman Centurian (also played by Cleese) happily points out to him.

As punishment, Brian has to write the proper Latin phrase, Romani ite domum, 100 times. He does. And then the Romans quickly decide to crucify him for it.

He’s thrown in prison. He escapes. There are several high-speed sandal chases.

At some point, despite Brian’s adamant protestations, a mob of locals decides he is the messiah.

There’s a scene where a woman believes an abandoned gourd is a kind of Holy Grail, and another member of the mob of would-be disciples finds Brian’s dropped sandal and takes it as a sign from God.

“The shoe is a sign!” the man (Cleese again) cries. “Let us follow his example. Let us, like him, hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot.”

Later, Brian gives the equivalent of his gospel message from the balcony of his mother’s apartment:

“Look, you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves,” the reluctant savior says, before Romans lead him off to be crucified.

When “Life of Brian” was released for the first time 25 years ago, some people didn’t think it was funny.

In fact, some people called it blasphemous. Like the governments of Ireland and Norway, for instance, who banned the film. (The film eventually was released in both countries. And filmmakers used the Norwegian flap to their advantage in an ad campaign in Sweden that said, “The film so funny that it was banned in Norway!”)

“Interestingly, the controversy came from people who haven’t actually seen the movie and didn’t want to see the movie,” Goldstone said.

Do do do do, do do do do. That sounds familiar.

Seems “The Passion” and “Life of Brian” have something else in common besides crucifixion scenes that makes some people uncomfortable.

“It’s just about organized religion and how dangerous it can be to just follow the mob and not consider for yourself what it’s all about,” Goldstone said. “People wanting to believe in things because that’s what they think they ought to . . . I think that’s where the dangers lie.”

Reminds me of all the folks out there who flamed me after I criticized “The Passion,” as if that film and that particular filmmaker’s vision are somehow a litmus test for faith.

It’s a movie, people. Just like “Life of Brian.”

Goldstone says the message of his film is simple.

“Don’t follow false prophets. Make up your own minds.”

Right. So before you shoot off those flaming e-mails, at least see the movie for yourself.

And make up your own mind.

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