Examining Controversial Depictions of Jesus Christ in Cinema

Being asked to write about the religious and spiritual qualities of cinema for The Film Magazine had the unexpected side effect of reawakening my fascination with theology, and I still can’t quite get over how spiritually transporting some films actually are. The inspiration for this particular article comes from much further in the past than my writing career however…

A strict Catholic upbringing means I had a rough awareness of sacrilege and blasphemy from a very young age. One particularly memorable incident is when my older sister orchestrated a game of “church” in our living room using a packet of crisps as the bread offering. No sooner had “Body of Christ” been uttered and a ready salted crisp proffered to the congregation had our mother come storming in, snatching away the offending crisps. I remember being totally mystified – I thought my mam would have been happy that we were playing church and she hadn’t offered much of an explanation as regards putting a sudden stop to our game.

In hindsight, explaining the deep intricacies of the sacrilege that is ridiculing “The Blessed Sacrament” to a 5 year old might have been a bit much, but the incident alone left the impression that the game was definitely off limits. The older I got the more I observed disapproving face-turning by my parents as I began to watch more mature television and film, though any attempted parental censoring served to only encourage exploration of media that was apparently offensive to the Christian faith. Speaking from an insider perspective, never underestimate the capacity for a Christian to be offended. Trust me, this statement isn’t entirely mean-spirited.

There is a whole plethora of movies out there regarding different aspects of Christianity which can be labelled as “controversial”, and exploring the whys and hows of these different controversies can give an illuminating insight into our society and ourselves. You can even organise these films into different camps – some are tentatively exploring taboos in an almost spiritual manner, others are offering a scathing social commentary, whilst some are all about the shock value. It is genuinely interesting to see how people do react to these flicks. As a Catholic living in Western Society, I do scoff at the idea of Christian persecution in the likes of the UK and US, and I find such claims to come from a lack of self-awareness. As such, I do try to take any mocking on the chin, but I must confess that some takes on my religion do come too close to the knuckle for my taste, causing me to wince.

So, without much further ado, let us explore the movies that have brought religious mobs to the doors of cinemas.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a natural start to this analysis. Usually it’s the first film that comes to mind when discussing mischievous cinema, and being the only comedy in this list it certainly boasts the most ridiculing tone.

Despite its reputation, I am confident that most modern audiences would recognise that Life of Brian’s bark is much worse than its bite, as it suffers from a severe case of misunderstanding.

Researching the outrage it caused upon its release some 40 years ago, and the enormous unfounded conclusions people leapt to at the time, is almost as funny as actually watching the film.

Life of Brian’s origins lie in what was originally a drunken throwaway comment. Tired of questions about what their next project would be during a promo tour of their movie Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Eric Idle blurted out “Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory”. What started as a joke became a serious movie pitch, with controversy following soon thereafter.

The film was promptly dropped by their original production company and no other major film studio would touch it with a barge pole. The only reason this film exists today is because of personal financial investment by ex-Beatle George Harrison, who helped create the production company Handmade Films – probably the most expensive cinema ticket of all time.

With the drama of the actual production over, chaos truly kicked off upon the film’s release. Of course, the most vitriolic responses were found in the US – protesters demonstrated outside of theatres, with notable pickets in New York City making very imaginative comparisons: Python=Serpent=Satan. Uproar also sounded amongst the hierarchy of organised religion in an almost strange demonstration of one-upmanship.

According to Sanjeev Bhaskar  in Why Monty Python’s ‘Foul, Disgusting and Blasphemous’ Life of Brian’ Wouldn’t get Made Today, the film was described as “profane parody” by the Lutheran Council. Speaking to Variety Magazine, Abraham Hecht, President of the Rabbinical Alliance, famously called it “foul”, “disgusting” and “blasphemous”. The Catholic Film Monitoring Office (not wanting to be outdone) declared it a sin to even so much as watch the film.

Even if Life of Brian had no other cultural impact, the words of Terry Gilliam (according to Nicholas Barber’s article for the BBC, Life of Brian: The Most Blasphemous Film Ever) seem accurate (or at the very least, pretty funny): “I thought at least getting the Catholics, Protestants and Jews all protesting against our movie was very ecumenical on our part… we have achieved something useful”.

Outrage was also found amongst European audiences, with a complete ban upon release in both Norway and Ireland. Mary Whitehouse and “The Festival of Light” managed bans across some local authorities in the UK (even from those that didn’t have cinemas within their jurisdiction) but she didn’t actually manage a nationwide ban. But why?

Well, she failed to prove that the film was actually blasphemous.

Despite the upset caused to religious groups (particularly Christians), Monty Python’s Life of Brian isn’t really about Jesus Christ. Instead, the film focuses on Brian Cohen, a man born at the same time as Jesus; a pathetic would-be rebel haplessly trying to sabotage the Roman Occupation of Palestine. Through a series of Python-esque events, he is mistaken for The Messiah. Jesus Christ himself only has a total of three appearances/mentions. Both Terry Jones and Michael Palin are quoted with saying that they didn’t want to make a film about Jesus himself as he was “a very good bloke, saying a lot of very good things” and that there was “very little to ridicule in his life.”

This isn’t to say that Life of Brian is entirely free of offence and controversy however.

Despite their reputation for surreal comedy, the Monty Python troupe have always had a knack for social commentary and they always particularly delighted in ridiculing authority. Firstly, some gags have not aged well at all: blackface during the Magi scene, regular flinging of Jewish slurs (including Brian’s uncomfortable tirade), and the jokes made at the expense of Loretta’s transsexualism are guaranteed to set modern audiences’ teeth on edge.

Once the script had been completed it was sent to be read over by a canon at Windsor Castle’s St George’s Chapel. The canon concluded that it wasn’t blasphemous and was in fact very amusing, noting the script’s mockery of “religious illusions”.

However, this is just one opinion and, for some, certain sketches don’t fall short of outright contempt and disdain for religion, particularly those of Abrahamic origin.

For example, in the stoning scene (in which a man is condemned to death for uttering the name Jehovah), the writing treads an uncomfortable fine line in which Monty Python become dangerously close to perpetuating harmful antisemitic stereotypes. The scene is only rescued by its own sheer absurdity including its bearded ladies, and its perfectly timed punchline. Furthermore, even though Christ is conspicuous by his absence, Monty Python still manages to get those of a Papal leaning frothing at the mouth.

Glossing over the deliberate comparison between Our Lady and Brian’s hideous mother (“are you a virgin?”, the sequence that would leave Catholics stony-faced would be Brian’s crucifixion.

In the Catholic tradition, Jesus’ Passion is a subject of devotion that some individuals train themselves so as to contemplate it with love and adoration. So, to have the nature of Jesus’ death (and there is a resounding academic agreement that crucifixion was a truly torturous form of execution) be tarnished and made a vehicle for comedy would be too much to bear without some offence being caused. With the sensation of Catholic guilt hanging heavily over my head, I must conclude that Brian’s execution is bloody hilarious, crowned by the now iconic “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

Despite this analysis, I don’t think any of the above reasons are the cause for the film’s outrage.

Some of it would be genuine ignorance as many of the protesting faithful wouldn’t even go see the film, but more compelling, I believe it’s because Monty Python’s Life of Brian provides a startlingly unflattering reflection of our own lives.

The film’s continued popularity for 40 years is because its ribbing of the status quo is still relevant to today. What tickled me most in my latest rewatch were the antics of “The People’s Front of Judea” (which I genuinely had to double check in case I mixed it up with The Judean People’s Front) and how painfully similar they were to the current sorry state of Britain’s Political Left. I think I probably cried out “splitter” during the last General Election.

In general, the characters that fill the sets of Life of Brian are petty, small-minded and shallow; all of them without honour or an ounce of piety. The depravity of these characters reaches its peak with the proclamation of Brian as “The Messiah!” The ensuing mob that bicker amongst themselves over gourds and sandals, and brutally murder supposed unbelievers, could be mistaken as a general history of Christianity (with all of its persecutions and schisms) but it is more accurately a depiction of modern hypocrisy – both within and beyond the realm of the Christian faith.

We see all of us.

The weak-minded, eager to follow and be part of the latest fad or craze with little interest in the empirical truth. Yes-men obsessed with gaining power through grovelling and brown-nosing, with no care towards any self-respect. The Materialistic with no ears for matters of the spirit. And, finally, the most frustrating: those desperate to be seen as loyal followers of The Messiah even though they show no love or compassion for their fellow people.

For the many outraged religious, a massive opportunity is being missed by omitting a watch of Monty Python’s Life of Brian as it provides a stark warning against the hubris of a religious high. The dangers of pride and a lukewarm attitude (which are both depicted in the film) can easily kill dead the true spirit of a potentially rich and fulfilling faith. In the words of George Harrison (in an interview with The Evening Standard back in 1966): “If Christianity is good as they say it is, it could stand up to a bit of discussion.”

If you think Life of Brian is bad, you should check out Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

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