Life of Brian |
directed by Terry Jones
(Warner Brothers, 1979)
Life of Brian is irreverence at its peak.
It is not, as its detractors have claimed, sacrilegious. Far from mocking Jesus, as some people (who probably haven't seen it) assert, it mocks poor Brian, a simple lad born just down the street from that infamous backyard stable. But it is extraordinarily funny.
This movie could have failed at so many levels, but it works because of the remarkable writing and acting talents of the Monty Python troupe. Each assumes numerous roles in the film, and each is gut-bustingly funny.
Brian (Graham Chapman) is a young Jewish man who joins an inept liberation movement because he's attracted to one of its members. His first act of civil disobedience was to be a simple graffiti slogan, but a hilarious lesson in Latin grammar turns it into a major statement for the movement. Their next act of terrorism proves far less successful....
The real action begins when Brian, posing as a street prophet to escape Roman pursuers, inadvertently convinces a rabble of passersby that he is the messiah. The rabble grows and, the more Brian protests, the more fervently they believe.
The six Monty Python regulars (Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and token American Terry Gilliam) play 40-odd characters, some of whom are priceless icons of modern comedy. Cleese, for instance, is the orderly Reg and the strong-jawed centurion, among others. Gilliam is a thunderous prophet of doom and mad jailer. Idle, best known in this film for leading the closing song, "Always Look at the Bright Side of Life," is also a wiseguy crucifee, cross-gendered revolutionary and stuttering jailer's assistant. Jones is Brian's foul mother and a formerly silent, juniper berry-growing hermit. And Palin is a big-nosed Samaritan, cheery ex-leper, dull prophet and Pontius Pilate (a real treat!).
It's the mix of Python personalities, mixed with fresh, unapologetic wit, that makes Brian a movie that can be watched over and over again. Besides the troupe's earlier film, Holy Grail, what movie has imbedded whole skits in the minds of viewers so relentlessly? The funny bits are too numerous to list, but just mention the stoning ("Jehovah! Jehovah!"), the interrogation ("Thwow him to the fwoor, centuwion. Vewy woughwy!") or the mild-mannered administrator of executions ("Crucifixion? Good. Out the door, line on the left, one cross each.") in a crowd and watch your friends start to laugh.
But while Grail paints its humor with a broad brush, Brian has a highly textured undercoating of sly wit and deep social commentary on true religious belief vs. mob mentality. Far from attacking Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter), it points an unflinching finger at the roots of faith and gullibility.
Of course, if you don't care to dig so deeply into the film, you can watch it purely at its surface level. You'll still laugh up a storm.