CANI Film Night II: From Mary Whitehouse and the Bishop of Southwark to King’s College, London and the Bright Side of Life (of Brian)…
Before the Classical Association in Northern Ireland gets to the importance of history (particularly that of the sixth century…), more fifth-century hoards, a day-long reading of Homer, and Byzantine women, it hosted its second Film Night at Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre on 13th October.
It was a rainy night, but the MAC was a beacon promising a hot drink and a CANI night just a little bit different to usual. We rode the lift up to the big bright space of the Lab studio, where Dr Peter Crawford built the anticipation for the main feature with a few thought-provoking tidbits about the film, its stylised graphics running in the background. We were shocked when he started his introduction with the question: is it even legal to screen Monty Python’s Life of Brian in public in Belfast? We were unaware that charges of heresy saw to it that Life of Brian was banned by many local councils, cities – even countries, and that some of those bans survived into the 21st century.
It’s mind-boggling to think that any audience could maintain a straight face and take literally a scene such as Palin’s Nisus Wettus: “Crucifixion? … Good. Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each.”
Moreso that Cleese and Palin had to appear on TV opposite the Bishop of Southwark, who railed against the film’s blasphemy (despite having missed the opening scene where it is lucidly established that Brian of Nazareth is merely someone born on the same day in Bethlehem, whom the Three Wise Men initially mistake for Jesus).
On the other hand, we also had a chuckle, even days afterwards, to think of Cleese and Jones attending the 2014 conference held at King’s College, The Historical Jesus and his Times, via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, witnessing their lampoonish parody dissected in academic papers on various subjects related to the film. The talks from the conference have been edited together and published:
The reception of Life of Brian has definitely come full circle.
So, although it might have seemed an eclectic choice at first, why show a Hollywood blockbuster that thumbs its nose at historical accuracy (I staged my own walkout of ‘Troy’ when Agamemnon killed Priam), when one of the best comedies ever committed to film just so happens to be about a province of the Roman Empire in the first century AD? Messrs Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin have gone on record regarding the pride they took in the level of historical research they put into writing the script, and there are numerous instances where that pride is fully justified.
For instance, even if they are played-up marvellously for comedic effect, the divisions within Jewish society (the Judaean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judaea, the Judaean Popular People’s Front, and the Popular Front of Judaea) are historically accurate, and were borne out most tellingly during the Revolt of 66-70 where Jewish factions seemed more interested in fighting each other than confronting the Roman army battering down Jerusalem’s defences. It is through these exaggerated caricatures and the Pythons’ research in writing the film, that their depiction of first century Judaea has transcended satirical comedy.
First and foremost though, Life of Brian remains a comedy; one that if the comments from some of our attendees in the MAC who have not seen the film in many years are anything to go by, has aged well. Its combination of silly, insightful (and even incendiary) jokes still raise howls of laughter on a first, second or one-hundredth viewing. And I challenge you when you next misplace something, not to recall The Boring Prophet’s predictions:
“At this time … the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock.”
For more photographs from this event, head over to our Life of Brian Gallery