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Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

by on 2010/12/05


Several years back, I was introduced to someone who made it a point of publicizing their disdain for English comedy. While I didn’t think much about it at first, after a time it gnawed at me, and I returned to clarify.

Okay, I could understand disliking the shallow Carry On series, the ribald slapstick of Benny Hill, or the incessant antics of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. But what about Yes Minister? The Rutles? Fawlty Towers? The Office? The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? No, no, no, no, and no.

I played my trump card . . . Monty Python?

No.

I was stunned. The rejection was a lifetime first. It barely computed. In retrospect, I now realize our relationship changed at that very instant, as if I’d learned of their terminal illness. I felt a terrible sense of pity. If someone can’t find anything to appreciate in the works of Monty Python, they might never know reason, understand artistry, feel revelation, or even possess the capacity to laugh.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a case in point. Helmed by The Welsh Python, Terry Jones — who co-directed their earlier Holy Grail with The American Python, Terry Gilliam — it tells the story of Brian Cohen of Nazareth (Graham Chapman), who lives chafing under the reign of Romans in AD 33 Jerusalem. More than biography, comedy, or an historical fiction, it offers real and timeless insight into the human condition, with particular regard to religiosity. Plus it happens to be hilarious.

As well as Chapman and the Terrys, Brian features the usual Python players, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin, as well as Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes, and a number of cameos, including the project’s behind-the-scenes saviour, George Harrison. Together they develop an arc which resembles, parallels, and occasionally intersects with the life of Jesus Christ, expanding its constituent episodes to explore their comic potential.

Conventional situations — public speaking, beggary, sales, and other interactions — are extensively mined for humour. A variety of methods are tried, ranging from obvious sight gags (slapstick, nudity, and a gladiatorial carnage denoted “Children’s Matinee”) to subtler conceptual disconnects (ungrateful beneficiaries, a grammatically challenged vandal, and blackmailers refusing to submit to blackmail). And where no approach is left untried, neither are most spheres: ideological, political, sexual, sociological, and obviously religious.

In fact it’s Brian’s keen focus on religious devotion which stands as its best-known claim to infamy. Commonly and mistakenly criticized for lampooning Christ, the film rather takes aim at the desperate measures of some followers: the unquestioning loyalty of the blind faithful, rationales or outright lies of convenience, the lemming mentality of the masses. None is exempt from attention, and surprisingly little comic decoration is needed for such dogmatic conventions to appear as amusing as they are accurate.

Much of the humour relies on a tendency common in spiritual doctrine, extended to other facets of life: things have always been done in a particular way. One school of thought suggests only adversity motivates change. Not so here. Shop keepers risk profits to haggle properly, mortal threats call for “immediate discussion”, and magistrates feel so entitled to obeisance that they have difficulty recognizing insubordination. Change is unlikely, if not impossible, and the mere possibility of it has the power both to frustrate its victims, and to entertain an audience

I’ll wind down my pontificating by saying Life of Brian is brilliant all over. If pressed to any complaint, I don’t have much love for the end. Still, at least it has one . . . better than Holy Grail, which crippled an otherwise effective movie with the worst anticlimax in cinematic history. Plus Eric Idle’s performance of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” wraps things up rather memorably.

Speaking of which, I only realized toward the end of rewatching this film that I hadn’t once thought of Not the Messiah, Idle’s operatic interpretation. I’m relieved its disappointment failed to sour the original. You really can go home again sometimes.

George Harrison once claimed Monty Python had inherited The Beatles’ spirit. He felt the Pythons embodied a similar sense of breadth, depth, and fun. When the production met with a financial crisis, he stepped in to help them resolve it. Appropriately enough, it’s fair to say that if the Pythons were The Beatles of comedy, then Life of Brian is their Sgt. Pepper.

* * * * *

Rated R for adult situations, language, and nudity

94 minutes

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