A MOTION PICTURE DESTINED TO OFFEND NEARLY TWO THIRDS OF THE CIVILIZED WORLD. AND SEVERELY ANNOY THE OTHER THIRD.
Modern audiences are not likely to find Monty Python’s most controversial film terribly daring or blasphemous. But back in 1979 it was a big deal. Several British town councils banned it, and so did a few countries, including Ireland and Norway (which inspired Swedish distributors to market the film as ”so funny that it was banned in Norway”). At its New York premiere, priests and nuns picketed screenings. In some cases, it took decades for the controversy to die down completely.
The Pythons must have found all this amusing, since their intention was indeed to make fun of organized religion. They participated in debates, making the point that they weren’t in fact lampooning Christ or God, only the church and its traditions. As a satire, Life of Brian may not be hard-hitting, but it is still ingenious and hilarious.
Next door to the stable where Jesus Christ is born, Brian Cohen also sees the light of day. Three wise men bring gifts for the holy child, but are almost chased away by Brian’s mother (Terry Jones) until she learns that the gifts are valuable. As a young adult, Brian is attracted to a rebel, Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), and becomes involved with a Jewish resistance group, one of many that can’t seem to make up its mind whether to fight the Romans or each other. After repeating what he heard Jesus say, Brian gains a following as the new Messiah, which causes chaos and complicates his romance with Judith…
Saved by George Harrison
The original financing of the movie fell through at the last minute because of concerns over the subject matter. But George Harrison definitely wanted to see the Pythons take on Christianity, so he set up a company (HandMade Films) and helped pay for the movie. The ex-Beatle reportedly has a cameo as ”Mr. Papadopoulos”. We should be all be very grateful to Harrison, because this was a step up for Monty Python’s cinematic endeavors. Their last film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), was a successful spoof of the King Arthur legend, directed by both Terrys, Gilliam and Jones. Apparently, the group decided that Jones’s approach to directing suited them all better than Gilliam’s, but the latter still contributed in every way, including a few absurd, animated touches.
Life of Brian has a story that holds up better than Monty Python’s other projects, following Brian from birth to crucifixion. Along the way, their themes and targets are clear – the brutal power of the Romans, the inability of a fledgling resistance to focus on one goal without falling into rivaling groups (which has always been true everywhere), crowd mentality and the odd traditions that are made sacred in every religion. All of it is ridiculed in marvelously silly ways with a few skits standing out in particular, such as the stoning and Pontius Pilate (brilliantly played by Michael Palin as a fop who can’t say ”r” properly) daring his troops to laugh at his best friend’s name, ”Biggus Dickus”.
The crucifixion in the end comes to the tune of the Pythons’ most memorable song, ”Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. Initially underwhelmed by Eric Idle’s idea, the Pythons still went ahead with the song and the sequence is a funny and bittersweet way to end the movie. When Graham Chapman died in 1989, the other Pythons gathered at the memorial service and sang ”Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” together. No wonder that the song has become a beloved British classic, a symbol of a stiff upper lip.
The film may be needlessly slapsticky at times, but there’s always a fresh stroke of brilliance waiting throughout.
Life of Brian 1979-Britain. 93 min. Color. Produced by John Goldstone. Directed by Terry Jones. Screenplay, Cast: Terry Jones, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin. Song: ”Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (Eric Idle).
Trivia: Alternative title: Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Quote: “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 as a freedom fighter)
Last word: “I never thought it would be as controversial as it turned out, although I remember saying when we were writing it that some religious nut case may take pot shots at us, and everyone replied: ‘No’. I took the view it wasn’t blasphemous. It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It has come back with a vengeance and we’d think twice about making it now.” (Jones, The Guardian)