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Monty Python's Life of Brian Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 May 2008
ImageOut of the various opi of Monty Python, “Life of Brian” is the magnum.  It’s more focused than “Holy Grail” and definitely more coherent than “Meaning of Life.”  And it follows, pretty much, one character, Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), from the beginning of the movie to the end.  The other Pythons pop up as needed, or not, but the movie gains interest by having this central character. 

Brian is born when Jesus is, and the three wise men accidentally arrive at his cradle in a manger before they realize their mistake, and head for that other manger down the alley a ways.  This disappoints Brian’s cranky mother Mandy (Terry Jones), who liked the gold and frankincense, but could do without the myrrh.  The movie returns to Brian many years later as he and his mother try to hear the Sermon on the Mount.  We do see and hear Jesus in the background in this scene, doing what sounds like a very reasonable modern-day translation of that beloved Sermon.  But the bystanders have problems.  “Blessed are the cheesemakers?” one of them guesses.

But Mandy wants to get over to the local stoning to get her hand in.

Though the movie does focus on Brian, there’s not really a story, just a series of incidents as his life heads for his death.  Brian becomes involved with a group of Jewish rebels, the People’s Front of Judea, who spend a great deal of time talking about springing into action, but rarely doing so, especially after most of them are wiped out in the bowels of Pilate’s palace when they encounter their hated rivals, the Judean People’s Front, also there to kidnap Pilate’s wife; this group is also wiped out. To show his courage to Reg (Cleese), the leader of the PFJ, Brian scrawls graffiti on a Roman wall.  But a stuffy centurion (Cleese) catches him in the act, corrects his lousy Latin grammar, and has him rewrite the whole thing, all over the wall.  Which leads to an encounter with other centurions. 

As he flees, he ends up in a group of holy men, spouting off their wisdom.  He frantically pretends to be such a holy man himself, and is immediately taken for a real one by some of the onlookers.  As he flees, he gains a gourd and loses a sandal.  The lost sandal, or shoe, is immediately seized as a holy object; later, so is the gourd.  This goes on, escalating steadily, until a huge mob follows the exasperated Brian everywhere he goes.  Even unto his crucifixion.

If there’s one main target in “Life of Brian,” and I’m not saying there is, mind you, it’s fanaticism, not Christianity, which is more or less confined to the corners of the screen.  Jewish rebel groups argue among themselves, with differences of doctrine being more important than attacking the occupying Romans.  Brian unwillingly gathers followers who seize on and twist everything he says as being confirmations of his own Messiah-hood; if he says he’s not the Messiah, that’s somehow seen as proof as convincing as if he says he IS.  He tells the assembled crowd “You’re all individuals!”  As one they chorus, “Yes, we’re all individuals.”  It’s hopeless.

Every now and then, we return to preening Pontius Pilate (Palin), who has troubles with Rs—he says he has a fwend in Wome, and he chides his centurions for being wattled by a wabble of wowdy webels.  And he can’t understand why everyone regards the name of his friend Biggus Dickus (Chapman) with such hilarity.  This stuff is pretty funny, but it really doesn’t have much to do with Brian’s story.  It’s just amusing window dressing, as when Brian falls from a tower only to land in a passing spaceship, which zooms to the Moon, has a space battle, then crashes back to Earth, a few feet from that tower.  This sequence is paced very rapidly, almost breathlessly; you’re as dazed as Brian, but also amused.

So it’s not perfect.  So it’s a thing of bits and pieces.  But that’s what Monty Python’s Flying Circus always was—bits and pieces.  Many episodes of the original TV series had themes that they blithely disregarded, only to return to in the last few minutes.  Their movies are much the same.  They got together, squabbled over what to include and what to leave out, then one faction resignedly allowed the other to get their stuff into the movie.  Naturally they’re patchwork; that’s how this group functioned—and probably why they eventually drifted apart.

They were courageous, maybe brazen, in their decision to make “Life of Brian.”  Naturally more sensitive Christians, and probably Jews, objected to the film, but there’s really not much to object to.  In Judea at this time, there were lots of potential Messiahs, and what some of them said was just as nonsensical as the Holy Men’s blather here.  Historically, the film is honest, though hardly accurate.  What happens to Brian did happen to others, as well as to Jesus.  The movie concludes with a breathtakingly outrageous scene of a whole lot of crucifixion victims (or as the official cast list says, crucifees) merrily singing about looking on the bright side of life.  You can’t object to that idea.

The movie looks great in high definition video, even if it does reveal some effects shots, like the graffiti-covered wall.  The movie is extremely well produced, with lots of extras, all in realistic costumes; it was shot on desert locations in Tunisia, and though the intent overall wasn’t realism, it’s convincingly of the period.  Details of texture, like the crumbling walls, the home-spun fabrics, Pilate’s elegant robes, the centurions’ armor, pop off the screen here.  The sound is also excellent, crisp and detailed; you may catch more throw-away lines than you noticed before.

If you’re a Python fan, you probably already have this, perhaps in Beta, VHS, laserdisc and standard DVD.  Well, here it is again, with lots of extras (sob!), in sharper detail than before.  Buy it.

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