Oh, my God! Five big-screen passions (perspectives on Christian spirituality)

Film, from the beginning a way to portray the unportrayable and bring to life what can only be conceived of through magic or dreams (the work of Georges Méliès springs to mind, for example), not only doesn't avoid the topic of God but, in fact, has presented biblical stories in a wide array of variations, from the early 20th century to today.
Frame of Life of Brian (1979), Monty Python

4. HUMOUR AS A TANGENT Life of Brian (1979),  Monty Python

Keeping with the lighter side of things, let’s turn to the comedy starring the comedians known as Monty Python, often irreverently. The film starts with a visit from the Wise Men, who Mary doesn’t handle in the way we would expect. At least not according to Scripture: “We were led by a star,” they tell her. And her response: “Or led by a bottle, more like.” Life of Brian poses an intrinsically comical situation in which there is an individual who looks like Jesus Christ, sometimes speaks like Jesus Christ and could, at very specific moments, be though to behave like Jesus Christ…but who isn’t Jesus Christ. Brian is born as a pariah, but he will become part of an anti-establishment (anti-Roman) group, thus being persecuted and suffering similarly, without really being the son of God. Therein lies the humour: he suffers like Christ but isn’t Christ, in an endless number of nods that make normal humans identify with him.

Brian co-exists with the real son of God, but his being mistaken for Jesus will be the result of the ignorance that, precisely, contributes to this other Christ also being condemned. They seek out and achieve empathy through the most shameless parody. Like, for example, when Brian runs into the “ex-leper”, who was cured by Christ’s healing powers. “A bloody miracle,” he tells Brian. “One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by your leave. ‘You’re cured mate.'” There are many references to Christ, alongside the fight that Brian and his friends wage against the Romans. An anti-establishment group that aims to define their principles, even if these principles and the organisation itself seem wont to fall into ideological absurdities and bureaucratic red tape, which they themselves provoke. And he is charged with a series of missions, such as writing something like ‘Romans, go home’. However, he doesn’t conjugate the Latin properly (and is punished for it).

At one point in the story, Brian is mistaken for Jesus. When a blind man suddenly regains his vision (supposedly, although immediately afterwards he falls into a ditch, which he couldn’t see), he defends himself against the supposed miracle: “I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen?” One in the mob affirms the contrary, and is therefore extremely representative of the degree of derangement his coming brings out in some people: “I say You are, Lord, and I should know. I’ve followed a few.” No matter how much Brian denies it, one believer says to him: “Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.” At which point he agrees with them to get out of the mess: “All right! I am the Messiah!” And now this statement is also taken as proof: “He is! He is the Messiah!” This ludicrous exchange of opinions, responses and rejoinders not only parodies the social imbalance that occurred with the arrival of Christ, but also seems to point to the popular human need to believe in something, to hold some sort of principle beyond reason. A belief that brings consistency to the world, like that offered up by many gnostic sects in the era immediately after, as a religious continuation of the Hellenistic schools of thought, which provided remedies to all the world’s ills, consolation for a life on earth and promises of salvation beyond it.

Poster of the film

Although in Life of Brian we find the same scenes as in large Hollywood productions about the life of Christ, and thus the topic is unequivocally identifiable, the parody substantially alters the message. The lack of understanding Brian shows when he becomes an idol of the masses (“Your son is a born leader,” Judith tells his mother. “Those people out there are following him because they believe in him, Mrs Cohen. They believe he can give them hope.”) makes us laugh and that (which as Freud saw, kicks off the machinery of the subconscious) brings one to the true incredulousness (rational) of its message. This is something that, however, the main Lutheran theologians posed in quite a serious tone. Of course, Monty Python’s take on the matter is less dogmatic, and it doesn’t even enter the arena of critical debate. It offers a tangent, an abundant register in fiction, inherent in cinematographic productions, to let go of reality. And, in spite of that, or thanks to it, it manages to convey some of the most paradoxical mysteries of Christian spirituality, to which so many theological studies also point.

The tragic destiny awaiting Brian, crucified just like Christ, brings a smile at the very end. A bitter smile, but perhaps healing. As it leaves us with that catchy tune, which can be whistled and therefore remembered as consolation even in the worst circumstances: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.