FIVE STAR FILM: Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Monty Python's Life of Brian (UK, 1979)
Directed by Terry Jones
Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle 

IMDb Top 250: #182 (15/9/18)

The Christian church has done itself few favours in the past by the way in which it has responded to film, and by extension popular culture as a whole. Instead of using the popularity of a particular hot potato as a means to start a conversation - whether it be horror films, violent video games or tabletop RPGs - the default response of at least some aspects of the church has been one of puritanical opposition with no room for counter-argument. And this is not an attitude which is confined to the age of Mary Whitehouse: in August this year, the Christian Institute reported that Derby Cathedral was under fire for screening Don't Look Now, The Wicker Man and Monty Python's Life of Brian within its sacred walls.
The reaction to the latter in particular demonstrates just how far aspects of the church still have to go in understanding popular culture and bringing the gospel to those who consume it. Nearly 40 years on from its original release, many of my contemporaries would still hold that the film is blasphemous or disrespectful; some may even go so far as openly siding with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark in the almost unwatchable TV debate after its release. Needless to say, I count myself among the more discerning group of Christians who regard Life of Brian as a comedic and cinematic masterpiece, which manages to match Holy Grail for laughs and exceed it in intelligence.
At their 30th anniversary reunion back in 1998, the Pythons spoke at length about their intentions for the film. Their original remit, in the words of Eric Idle, had been to make "Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory", but when they read the gospels they found little in Jesus' teachings or actions which they could ridicule or belittle. Since there was little humour to be found in what Idle called "good moral philosophy", they changed tack and made a film about someone being mistaken for the messiah and how religions behave when left unchecked and unchallenged. Terry Jones (who is an authority on the medieval church) put it this way: "There was nothing funny about what Christ said, and what's funny really is the fact that Christ said all these really good things about 'love thy neighbour' and everything, and for the next 2,000 years people were killing each other and torturing each other because they can't quite decide how he said it."
Life of Brian is not a blasphemous film: it is a film about blasphemy, and how a religion which claims to offer salvation for all can end up dividing people over the tiniest details. Speaking on YouTube recently, John Cleese opined that the central problem of any religion was the tendency of people to take literally what the founders of the religion intended to be metaphorical. In Life of Brian we see the kinds of schisms which have shaped the modern Christian landscape played out at rapid speed, with small and often innocent misunderstandings leading to deep divides as the movement races ahead of its level-headed (and in this case unintentional) founder. Christians may not like the comments it may make about how their church is organised, but a wise observer would see this not as blasphemy, but as constructive criticism from the very people that Christians should be attempting to reach.
As a send-up of both the contemporary church and its origins in the ancient world, Life of Brian is practically peerless. But even if you're not an offended believer or an ardent atheist looking for ammunition, the film is a brilliant study of the absurd behaviour that any form of organised belief tends to propagate. The film is as much a satire of religious groups as it is of political parties and pressure groups; the kind of conversations which the People's Front of Judea have are not a million miles from the dogma of Militant in the 1980s or certain corners of Momentum today. The intended uniformity of such groups (with all members working towards the same goal) is marred by the pettiness of the individuals therein, in what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of small differences". Such groups eventually come to exist only for the sake of supporting their own bureaucratic tendencies rather than changing people's lives for the better; instead of rescuing Brian, the PFJ just sits around passing motions about how it would be a good idea to help him.
A common debate among Python fans centres around whether Life of Brian is funnier than Holy Grail (with The Meaning of Life usually seen as the runt of the litter). While Holy Grail has a higher hit-rate of jokes and lends itself more readily to meme culture, Life of Brian is the more intelligent of the two works and its humour is more sharp and refined. To a certain extent, this reflects the films' different production stories as much as it does the interests and talents of the performers. On Holy Grail, the Pythons didn't really know what they were doing; they wanted something more cinematic than And Now For Something Completely Different, but many of the greatest successes of that film came about through good fortune or budget limitations. With Life of Brian, the writing process was more agreeable, Jones had a singular voice as director, and the production was made easier thanks to Graham Chapman kicking his drinking problem.
That being said, Life of Brian is also part of a list of classic films which almost didn't get made. EMI, its main backer, pulled out days before filming was due to begin in Tunisia, concerned that the subject matter would put audiences off. The film only got made because former Beatle and long-time Python fan George Harrison put up the money; he mortgaged his house and set up HandMade Films, which would later produce and distribute the likes of The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail & I. Harrison's generosity (described by Jones as "the most anybody's ever paid for a cinema ticket in history") not only helped to secure Life of Brian's future, it gave a platform to some of the most successful and culturally significant films that Britain produced in the 1980s.
Like Holy Grail before it, Life of Brian is surprisingly cinematic given that its structure is a refinement of the Pythons' surreal, stream-of-consciousness approach to comedy. Many of the sets and locations were reused from Franco Zefferelli's TV epic Jesus of Nazareth, and the Pythons employed many of the same locals as extras. But because its subject matter has so much depth and subtlety, it feels at home on the big screen, with the large crowds of people involved feeling like part of a larger world rather than a mob rented to make up the numbers in a TV sketch. Terry Gilliam's animations, which have become one of the TV show's most iconic elements, are reduced largely to the opening credits, but the sequences with the aliens allows at least some of his anarchic energy to slip through.
The script of Life of Brian is beautifully structured so that the plot unfolds naturally rather than simply hopping from one sketch to the next. Like Holy Grail, the film benefits by restricting the versatile Chapman to (largely) one role and having him serve as the audience's guide through the madness. But where Holy Grail's middle section saw people go their separate ways, playing to the other members' respective strengths, Life of Brian maintains a single focus throughout, making it a more solid narrative experience. Certain scenes still work very well on their own, such as the stoning sequence or the centurion giving Brian a Latin lesson (in a loving middle finger to the Pythons' school days). But all the little bits ends up flowing together seamlessly and skillfully, where The Meaning of Life felt much more picaresque.
As I've indicated previously, it's very hard to describe what makes a comedy funny without simply listing every joke. If you're a fan of intelligent skewering of authority, there is a wide range of scenes to choose from, from the scenes with the PFJ (which are as good as anything in Yes, Minister) to the broader but no less hilarious scenes with Biggus Dickus and Pontius Pilate. If you love eccentric characters whose words puncture egos and parody traditions, you've got everything from Michael Palin's moaning prisoner to Idle's haggler in the market. And if all you want is to howl with laughter at people who have the world against them, Chapman plays Brian splendidly (and there's also Spike Milligan's cameo as, ironically, the only sane person for miles around).
The performances in Life of Brian are absolutely top-notch. In addition to Chapman's controlled brilliance, Cleese continues to excel playing authority figures, proving that there are few better at playing people frustrated when things don't go how they had hoped. Palin is brilliant throughout, refusing to allow self-awareness to sneak into his Pilate and his executioner foreshadowing his excellent role in Gilliam's Brazil. Jones (who saves the film's most famous line for himself) is as good in drag as he is out of it, Idle alternates between chipper and chippy with ease, and while Gilliam is left to play the madman or the idiot, he does it so effortlessly that it is pointless to complain.
Monty Python's Life of Brian is a terrific piece of work and arguably the finest achievement of all the Pythons' careers. Its longevity as a satire of religion and organised belief is matched only by the long shelf life of its jokes, which are still fresh, funny and richly constructed after nearly four decade. The performances are excellent, the music is witty and varied, and the visual sensibility can give both Jesus of Nazareth and The Gospel According to Matthew a run for their money. It is a towering achievement of British cinema, showing what intelligent comedy can achieve, and should be seen by anyone with even a fraction of an open mind.

For more of my thoughts on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Long Good Friday, The Wicker Man or Withnail & I, click here for episodes of The Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio. 

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