|Monty Python's Life of Brian|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 27 January 2004|
When this wise and funny movie was first released in the United States, it created a mini-furor that prefigured the much noisier one that surrounded Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ a few years later. The religiously inflexible regarded Life of Brian as nothing less than blasphemy, creating enough intolerant clamor that the film didn't get as many bookings as it deserved. Thankfully, the busy, gutsy video company Anchor Bay Entertainment has now issued the film in a handsome DVD package. It's short on extras -- the usual trailer and talent biographies (though these are excellent) -- but the print is exceptionally good, the sound crisp and vivid, and the packaging appropriate. It's hard to read the titles on a small screen, but what the heck.
Life of Brian is the best of the Monty Python movies; it's probably not as funny overall as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it's more focused, more daring and less gimmicky and less dated. This movie simply does not look like it was made 20 years ago.
Most of the Pythons were history buffs, particularly Graham Chapman, who plays Brian (and a few other roles); they knew that at the time Jesus lived, the region was rife with rumors of Messiahs, and that other preachers and religious figures had been identified as the Messiah, too -- and this is what happens to hapless Brian.
First, he has the misfortune to be born a stable away from the real Jesus (who is always treated with respect in the movie), so that the Three Wise Men happen upon Brian's manger first. His cranky mother (Terry Jones, always the best Python hag) is none too happy when they snatch back their gold, frankincense and myrrh and head for the right manger.
Years later, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, while people way in the back try to puzzle out his words that they can only half-hear. "Did he say blessed are the cheesemakers?" wonders one. "It's not to be taken literally," another explains. "It refersw to any manufacturers of dairy products." Well then, why did he say Blessed is the Greek? Which Greek? And so on.
Brian Cohen is merely trying to make his way through life, accompanying his mother to a lively stoning, and falling in love with an attractive young woman. He becomes involved with the Judean People's Front, a group of Jews who are determined to overthrow the occupying Romans, but who reserve most of their wrath for their rivals, the People's Front of Judea. It's a very funny satire of all this kind of underground movements, who so often lose their original goals, and redouble their efforts, the classic definition of fanatics.
Brian is accidentally identified as the Messiah, and instantly a cluster of the devout begin following him about, worshipping his shoe when it falls off. He can't shake his followers; no matter what he says, that he isn't the Messiah, that he is the Messiah, they excitedly interpret as further proof of his divinity. This is his gourd! This is his sandal! No, it's his shoe! No, it's a sandal! We should gather shoes in abundance! No, we should fill his gourd! Miracles! Juniper berries!
Helplessly, Brian shouts, "You are all individuals!"
Rapturously they chorus "Yes! We're all individuals!" (The movie has great fun with huge mobs all speaking in precise unison.)
Eventually, the Romans kind of stumble across him, and he's hauled before Pontius Pilate, who's been busy crucifying lots of people lately....
There's nothing at all blasphemous about Life of Brian; it makes virtually no comment on the Judeo-Christian religions, but is instead about fanaticism in all its forms. But it's not doctrinaire itself; it's far too blithe and breezy to be anything like dogmatic itself, even about dogmatism. It's as loopy and intellectually silly as everything else the Monty Pythons ever tackled as a group, but tighter than their other efforts, with fewer throwaway scenes. (Although Brian is rescued by a passing spaceship at one point.)
The script was, as usual, written by the entire bunch: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones (who directed this time around) and Michael Palin, and as usual, all of them play multiple roles, with Cleese and Idle getting the busiest workouts in this regard. (At one point, Cleese leads away a band of Jewish fanatics, passing himself as the centurion leader of a Roman platoon.)
Even if the movie is not blasphemous, it's certainly irreverent about religious inflexibility, though not religion itself. Cleese (in yet another role) plays a Jewish official who announces that an old man is to be stoned for having said the name of God aloud. The old man defiantly says "Jehovah" again (and is promptly inundated with stones), while Cleese, pompously trying to keep the rules intact, helplessly ends up saying "Jehovah" himself, and is enthusiastically stoned, too.
The Python troupe was never above going for low comedy; here, Pontius Pilate (Palin, who's wonderful) has a speech impediment, which leads to a great deal of giggling by the part of his guards, since Pilate is given to assuring that he won't be "wattled by a wabble of wowdy webels." His guards are also amused that Pilate's best fwend is Biggus Diccus.
But for all its cheerful cheekiness, the movie is ultimately courageous, and doesn't back away from the fate of most Messiahs, false and otherwise. But it does provide a cheerful little song to be crucified by: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
When the Pythons couldn't get financing for this touchy subject anywhere else, Beatle George Harrison put up some of his own money and started Handmade Films, which turned out quite a few movies over the next few years. Harrison also appears in the movie, as the Greek that some wonder is the blessed one. Spike Milligan, one of the great members of British comedy troupes prior to the Pythons, is also in the movie, mostly because he just happened to be in Morocco when Terry Jones was directing himself and the other Pythons on location.
As good as this movie is, caution still has to be offered: if you've never warmed up to Monty Python's Flying Circus, you're not likely to change your mind with this entry. But for the rest of us, Life of Brian is refreshing, funny and timeless.