A film review by Craig J. Koban
MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN
25th Anniversary Retrospective
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
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
dogfight in outer space, you know that this ain't
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
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?
John Cleese have a silly walk?
what was the fuss about?
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
movie plays like THE DA VINCI CODE
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).
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?”
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
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!”
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
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