Director – Terry Jones – 1979 – UK – Cert. 12a – 93m
An absurdist comedy about of Brian, Jesus Christ’s next-door neighbour, who falls in with left-wing activists, develops a religious following and ends up crucified – back out in UK cinemas in Glorious Standard Definition on Friday, April 7th
Like The Last Temptation Of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), a Biblical epic made by a New Yorker who tries to bring first century Palestine to life on the screen by filling it with actors who speak as if they’re on the streets he knows, so too Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, made by the Monty Python team, nurtured first by Oxbridge student drama society culture then by British radio and television, attempts a comic equivalent of the Christian Gospel narrative by filling it with characters possessing such quintessentially English names as Brian and Reg and sporting English accents. For the Pythons and their audience, this strategy works because of its familiarity from Britain’s hugely popular Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show, made for the BBC. It’s what everyone attending the film in the UK expected.
The Monty Python team (Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle & Michael Palin) all wrote the film between them and take on multiple acting roles, with Jones also directing, animator Gilliam also taking on production design, and Chapman, who had studied medicine, also taking on the role of set medic. The original idea was apparently to satirise Jesus Christ, but given there was no apparent flaw in his character as recorded in the Biblical Gospels from which comic ideas could be developed, the team instead settled on the idea of chronicling the life of Jesus’ next-door neighbour, Brian Cohen (Chapman), whose mum is played by Jones in keeping with the long tradition developed from English pantomime of men cross-dressing to play women’s parts, a staple of the Python TV show.
Brian is venerated in a stable by the travelling three wise men (accompanied before they arrive by the strains of worthy, highbrow, Western, religious music) before they realise they’ve got the wrong address and hastily retrieve their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh so they can deliver them to Baby Jesus next door (accompanied once again by the strains of worthy, highbrow, Western, religious music). Like the money changers Jesus is recorded as ejecting from Jerusalem’s temple for turning it into a den of thieves, the tackier, more commercially driven end of popular religious iconography is cleverly and hilariously lampooned from the get go.
Following Gilliam’s animated titles featuring much, gratuitous, ancient Roman architecture and culminating with an angel being shot out of the sky – somewhat absurdly given that the gun was not invented until well over a millennium after Biblical times – the script presents the people at the back of the crowd who can’t quite hear what’s being said at the Sermon on the Mount, a stoning where all those casting stones at the accused are in fact women (who aren’t allowed to attend stonings on grounds of gender) disguised as men by means of fake beards, then takes a surprising turn to satirise political left wing activists the Judean Popular Front (not to be confused with their hated rivals, the People’s Front Of Judea) and their leader Reg (John Cleese). These days, despite being written, conceived and performed by six men, the whole thing comes across as deeply feminist.
Further (rather more juvenile) amusement is derived from speech impediment of Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Palin) wherein he pronounces the letter ‘r’ as the latter ‘w’ (cruelly and hilariously imitated by the local mob asking him to “welease Woderick” from impending crucifixion) and the double-entendre of the name of Pilate’s powerful friend Biggus Diccus (Chapman).
Hiding from a Roman raid on the JPF, Brian finds himself among various dodgy false prophets and has to orate to hide himself, inadvertently generating a crowd of followers who hang on to his every word, no matter how absurd. Eventually, he and many others are sentenced to crucifixion on a festival day where fellow crucifixee Eric Idle leads them in the song, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. Crucifixion was in reality pretty nasty and gruesome, a form of death by asphyxiation; here, it’s portrayed as people tied to crosses with their feet resting on little plinths, which actually doesn’t look so bad. As Pilate is reported to have said, “what is truth?”
Much as been said and written about the film over the years, which has gone from its perception back in the day as blasphemous and offensive (a blunder by media-naive, establishment churchmen foolishly and unwittingly playing into the hands of the Pythons’ understandable desire to promote their film and earn a living) to these days it being almost entirely subsumed into the English status quo, with the closing song now a popular standard. The Pythons have arguably satirised Christianity more effectively in movie sketches or scenes elsewhere – the Divine Right Of Kings in Monty Python And The Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975), the Protestant / Catholic contraception schism in the song Every Sperm Is Sacred and accompanying sketches in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (Terry Jones, 1983), and God as a lounge lizard (Ralph Richardson) muttering about free will in Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981) – but in Brian, they keep up the assault for most of an entire movie, even if some parts are more effective, focussed and on target than others.
I say most of, because at one point, Brian is saved from falling off a tower to certain death by landing in a spaceship crewed by two aliens for a brief, two minute intergalactic war that has Terry Gilliam written all over it and remains to this day one of this writer’s favourite parts of the film. Speaking of Gilliam, one should add that his production design for the film, messier and probably achieved for a far lower budget than most Hollywood Biblical epics, is as distinctive and striking as anything he’s ever done.
Perhaps the great strength of the film overall, for which the credit should go to Jones for directing and all six Pythons for writing and performing, is the irreverence of the whole piece (a very different thing from blasphemy), a preparedness to laugh at religion (Christianity) which doesn’t necessarily indicate an hostility towards it, merely to grapple with some of the conundrums it can represent and it’s misuse and abuse by humanity over the years. A point missed by its ill-informed, over-zealous, establishment detractors on release. (Or welease.)
Perhaps the most absurdly funny scene is where Brian, after spending the night with his new-found girlfriend Judith (Sue Jones-Davies) from the JPF, pulls back the shutters to see the awaiting multitude hanging on his every word. As his mother says, in what has become the line of dialogue synonymous with the film, “he’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy.” The multitude repeat zombielike Brian’s phrases such as, “You are all individuals” (“We are all individuals”) and “You must think for yourselves” (“We must think for ourselves”). This reaches its comic apogee in “You’re different” (We’re different”) and the hapless dissenter who utters the legend. “I’m not”
Monty Python’s Life Of Brian is back out in cinemas in the UK in Glorious Standard Definition on Friday, April 7th.
Trailer (2023 reissue):