A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN jjj

25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1977, PG, 94 mins.

Brian Cohen: Graham Chapman / Multiple roles by Monty Python's Flying Circus: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.

Directed by Terry Jones /  Written by Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Michael Palin

 
  Life of Brian Poster

One thing's for certain -  when an alien aircraft swoops down and saves Brian, a timid man living in during the time of Christ, and then engages in a STAR WARS-esque dogfight in outer space, you know that this ain't THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. 

Welcome to the world of Monty Python. 

When LIFE OF BRIAN opened in 1979 it created quite the surprising uproar, not matching but at least similar to the controversy being swung at THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.  LIFE OF BRIAN had a difficult time even making it to theatres across the world.  It was initially banned from theatrical release in Ireland for blasphemy.  It took a further eight years for it to get a release.  It was even banned in Norway and was not released until a year after in 1980.  The Python members, being ever so astute with poking fun at various institutions and people, subsequently marketed the film in Sweden as, “The film so funny it was banned in Norway!” 

The film even had a difficult time in the finance department.  It was originally financed by EMI, but they backed out when they believed the script to be blasphemous. EMI was later sued by the Pythons and settled out of court. Financing was then arranged through former Beatle George Harrison, who created Handmade Films for this purpose.  To infuriate matters worse, Python even toyed with the idea of calling the film JESUS CHRIST: LUST FOR GLORY, but wisely backed down.  But, after months of shooting in Tunisia and England, with the six members of the troupe playing over 40 characters, and with mountains of pre-publicity and controversy, the film opened in August of 1979.  It also was re-released in small venues this year for its 25th Anniversary, only two months after THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. 

Is this a coincidence?

Does John Cleese have a silly walk?

Ultimately, what was the fuss about? The film has rightfully emerged as a funny cult classic, despite being banned in countries and the Catholic Church branding it as blasphemy (of course, they did not take the time to see the film, they were even probably too busy this for its 25th Anniversary to see it by boycotting THE PASSION).  But, is this film a vindictive attack on Jesus and Christianity?  Nope.  Rather, Python seems to take square aim at modern organized religion and equally pokes fingers at people that are quick to give into questionable figures as messiahs.  The film never, ever makes Christ look bad.  As a matter of fact, he’s only in (wisely) two scenes in the whole film.  One is his birth (he’s the one covered by the heavenly hallo) and one where he is preaching in his famous “sermon on the mount”.  The latter occupies one of the funniest scenes in the film, where a few peasants way, way down in the nosebleed section of the mount, scream out, “Speak louder, for cryin’ out loud!  What did he say, blessed are the cheesemakers?”

This scene is crucial in developing and establishing the tone of BRIAN, and its farcical and satiric tones should not be misjudged.  It’s not a mockery of Jesus, rather just a silly and well-written farce that contains elements of that infamous brand of Python zaniness and a taste for smart, insightful humor, mixed with a lot of sight gags and overall outrageousness.  For it to be not as good as their previous film, the monumentally hilarious MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, was inevitable.  BRIAN  still remains a brave and bold satire whose humor has not aged much.  It’s still very, very funny.

The movie plays like THE DA VINCI CODE meets AIRPLANE!   The film opens in a familiar territory and time, just at the birth of Christ.  However, just a few mangers away, a baby named Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) is born to his mother Mandy (Terry Jones, who's hilarious here) Mandy isn'tT no virgin mother, as a scene later with a Roman centurion proves with devilish delight.  The infamous Three Wise Men show up at Brian’s crib by accident, demonstrating that they might not be that wise after all.  They do deliver their gifts, but after realizing their mistake, they steal them back and shove Mandy to the ground (in a droll little moment of comedy).

The film flash forwards thirty years ahead.  Both Brain and Jesus have all grown up, but whereas Jesus leads his now legendary life, Brian is a typical nobody living in Palestine.  That is, of course, until he joins the People's Front of Judea.  He eventually proves himself to their leader (played  with the usually scathing and sardonic wit by John Cleese) and works out a plan with the group to kidnap Pontius Pilate's wife. This plan fails, and Brian is captured.  He eventually frees himself (with a bit of help from the aliens previously mentioned), but something is different now.  He miraculously ends up amassing a huge following of people who believe he is the Messiah.  He, of course, tries to tell the obsessed mob that hounds him that he is not the messiah. “I'm not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly,” Brian screams to the mob.  One  woman zealot responds, “Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.”  Brian later grows very, very annoyed by his new followers, and in exasperated rage tells them to “F- -k off!”.  They then respond back, “How shall we F- - k off, my Lord?”

There is no doubt that LIFE OF BRIAN is one of the more daring and risky comedies of the 1970’s, let alone of all time.  The film tries to tell a parallel story to Christ of a man who has no desire to be a leader, let alone be a messiah, and who tells his followers who are essentially a misguided and naïve cult to be themselves and think on their own.  In one famous exchange, he screams out, “Think for yourselves.  You are individuals!’  They all chant back, “Yes, we are individuals.”  Again, the point is not to attack Jesus, per se.  The film is part attack on organized religion and largely part of an exercise in allowing Python to be shamefully funny and to entertain.  Sure, the whole theme of BRIAN is that blind faith can lead to naïve fundamentalism, but at its core is that fantastic brand of Python zaniness and pointed satire.

The film has many huge laughs along the way.  One of the funniest scenes occurs early in the film during a stoning, where the ever stoic John Cleese goes into the mob of stone throwers and asks, “Uh, are there any women here?”  It was one of the most strangely ironic scenes ever, as it’s played by men impersonating women impersonating men!  Cleese becomes increasingly erratic with the proceedings, which eventually leads to the mob stoning him. 

Cleese is also hilarious as the leader of the terrorist group, and in a classic and witty moment, he asks his followers, “C’mon, what has Rome done for us?”  After a bunch respond with a series of valid and particular examples of Roman ingenuity, Cleese sarcastically responds, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”  Cleese is also very funny as a Roman guard, who has a hilarious exchange with a criminal. “You know the penalty laid down by Roman law for harboring a known criminal,” he asks the man, “Crucifixion!”  The criminal responds, “Well, could be worse, I could be stabbed.”  Cleese responds, “Stabbed? Takes a second. Crucifixion lasts hours. It's a slow, horrible death.”  In a classic Python response, the criminal says back, “At least your out in the open air!”

This Python film was directed very capably by Terry Jones.  History has showed, however, that it was fellow Python Terry Gilliam that went on to become an accomplished director in the future.  Jones does an admirable job, though, and Gilliam provides yet another brilliant animated sequence for the film’s opening credits.  The film was also largely a reunion of sorts, seeing as the members of the group disbanded in the mid-1970’s.  Yet, they have not missed a beat with BRIAN and their timing and pacing is as good as ever.

One thing that stands out in the film is its final musical/dance number (if you could call it that) that probably offended more people then the rest of the film.  In it, several men (including Brian) have been crucified.  Brian is at his wit's end, of course, and sees no point to have any more hope, seeing as no one comes to rescue him.  A nearby crucifixion victim, played by Eric Idle, tries to cheer Brian up.  He tells him, logically, that, “You came from nothing, is going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!”  He then engages with the other crucified victims in the infamous "The Bright Side of Life," song number, which involves personal reflection, whistling, and as much dancing that being crucified on a cross allows you. 

It’s as painfully funny of a song number as I’ve ever seen, and reflects the group’s reputation for irony.  Yes, Jesus is said to have died on the cross and this is a predicating theme in the history of organized religion across the world for thousand of years, but, c’mon naysayers, lighten up?  It’s terribly difficult to make serious blasphemous accusations at such a silly scene that involves people singing lyrics like, “Life's a piece of shit when you look at it. Life's a laugh, it’s true.”

25 years later, MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN remains a daring, if not overly silly and inconsequential, satire of organized religion, and one that is more goofy at its core than seriously blasphemous.  It works on the level of a traditional Python film while maintaining their consistent level of witty and elitist humor, but is still not afraid of or intimidated by being vulgar or crude.   It’s a film that has aged rather well, largely because the material is not really been explored in the same tine elsewhere.  BRIAN is not the funniest Python feature film, but it is, bottom line, funny in the right places.  The people who ignorantly banned it in their respective countries missed the point.  After all, when Jesus said,  “ lessed are the cheesmakers”, he was clearly referring to all of humanity.  But then again, as Cleese points out in the film, “Well, obviously that’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

 

 

Bright Side of Life

 
 

Always look on the bright side of life.

[whistling]

Always look on the light side of life.

[whistling]

If life seems jolly rotten,

There's something you've forgotten,

And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.

When you're feeling in the dumps,

Don't be silly chumps.

Just purse your lips and whistle. That's the thing.

And...

 

Always look on the bright side of life.

[whistling]

Always look on the right side of life,

[whistling]

For life is quite absurd

And death's the final word.

You must always face the curtain with a bow.

Forget about your sin.

Give the audience a grin.

Enjoy it. It's your last chance, anyhow.

So,...

 

Always look on the bright side of death,

[whistling]

Just before you draw your terminal breath.

[whistling]

Life's a piece of shit,

When you look at it.

Life's a laugh and death's a joke. It's true.

You'll see it's all a show.

Keep 'em laughing as you go.

Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

And...

 

Always look on the bright side of life.

[whistling]

Always look on the right side of life.

[whistling]

Always look on the bright side of life!

[whistling]

Always look on the bright side of life!

[whistling]

Always look on the bright side of life!

[whistling]

Always look on the bright side of life!

[whistling]

Always look on the bright side of life!

[whistling]

Always look on the bright side of life!

[whistling]

Always look on the bright side of life!

 
 

  H O M E