Even in the age of “Bruno,” the fuss over Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” to crib a line from another of the troupe’s films, is not dead yet.
The 1979 comedy about a Nazarene named Brian Cohen who is born the same time as Jesus, mistaken for the Messiah as an adult and crucified amid a choreographed musical number (“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”), topped a recent poll of the most controversial movies of all time.
“A Clockwork Orange,” Stanley Kubrick’s chilling vision of a society terrorized by ultra-violent, Beethoven-loving teens, and John Water’s scatological comedy “Pink Flamingos” also made the Top-5 of the list compiled by Lovefilm, a UK movie rental outfit that released the survey in time for the debut of Sasha Baron Cohen’s outrageous “Bruno.”
It may be hard to believe now, but “Life of Brian” was banned as blasphemous in Norway and Ireland, among other places, and set off major protests in the U.S. The Glasgow City Council officially lifted its three-decade ban on the movie only two weeks ago so “Brian” could be shown in a film festival.
Many of the protesters at the time never actually bothered to watch the movie, which was a spoof not on Jesus, but on the folly of blindly following leaders. The film, a strong blend of Python absurdity and satirical bite, stands as the group’s most provocative work and ranks among its best efforts.
But is "Life of Brian" the most controversial movie of all time?
D.W. Griffith’s racist silent epic “Birth of a Nation,” hailed as a landmark in filmmaking -- yet reviled for portraying the KKK as heroes --might be a more appropriate No. 1. Or Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” which used pioneering filmmaking techniques to create an ode to Hitler, might qualify.
Films like those make the choice of “Life of Brian” look, well, silly.
The Pythons, no doubt, are getting a good laugh about stirring up such trouble 30 years later. The surviving members of the group, sans John Cleese, are set to reunite at London’s Royal Albert Hall in October for a one-shot concert version of “Life of Brian” called “Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy).”
So movie fans, tell us: what films do you think belong on the most-controversial list? Is it too early to make "Bruno" a contender? Use the comments section below to weigh in on movies that will live in infamy.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.