“He’s not the messiah! He’s a very naughty boy.” Yep, it’s one of the funniest films ever made, brilliantly satirising everything from organised religion to left-wing sects. On release back in 1979, this masterpiece was condemned by foaming religious types as being ‘blasphemous’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘made in hell’ (in fact, it was shot in Tunisia).
But who’d have guessed its message about the idiocy of blind religious faith would be even more relevant 40 years on? Certainly not John Cleese. Here’s what he had to say when your correspondent asked him about it back in 2011: “I don’t think we had any particular idea at the time that it would be so relevant in the future. When you’re younger, I think you think the world can be changed. When you’re older, you realise that certain personality types are going to appear generation after generation and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m particularly interested in the idea of literal-mindedness. I think most of the trouble with religious teachings is where people with very literal-minded tendencies take literally religious writings that were supposed to be understood metaphorically. Almost all the disasters in religion are the result of that. When you have the followers of a religion assuming that the founder of the religion was speaking in a way that’s as simple-minded as the way their own minds work, then I think you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”
A year earlier, I also took the opportunity to ask director Terry Jones about why he thinks the film is more highly regarded here than it is in the US. “Maybe it’s the terrible sensitivity about religion in the States,” he mused. “There’s still a feeling that it maybe isn’t quite right to make fun of the church.”