November 29, 2008

Life of Brian (1979)

Story says that after the enormous success of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", a reporter asked the comedy troupe about their next film project. Not really having an answer for that question, Eric Idle answered "Jesus Christ - Lust for Glory" as a little joke, and soon it became their typical answer to questions about the Python's future projects. However, what started as nothing more than a silly joke soon began to be taken seriously by the comedians as an interesting project to make, so they began to work seriously on it as a movie. Still, the end result was not exactly a film about the life and times of Jesus Christ (as reportedly they were unable to find anything to mock about it), but about fanatism of all kinds, taking as a starting point the credulity and hysteria of those willing to follow anyone as a messianic savior. "Life of Brian" was the name of the movie, and as soon as it was released quickly became known as one of the funniest and most controversial works done by the Pythons, and not without a reason!

The movie's plot is, as it name indicates, about the life of Brain Cohen (Graham Chapman), whom is a poor Jewish boy who was born in Bethlehem of Judea on the very same night as Jesus Christ. Years later, Brian is now a young idealist man who has grown up hating the Roman occupation of his country but who has not really done anything about it and instead works at the local Arena selling snacks. One day Brian attends one of Jesus' sermons and among the crowd he notices Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), a beautiful woman who leads him to the rebel group "People's Front of Judea". Brian joyfully joins the rebels, hoping to be able of really making a difference and bring down the Roman Government, but unfortunately, the missions given to him do not exactly end in the best way for the group. Things get complicated for Brian when after a bizarre series of circumstances, he ends up being confused with a messiah, and with this he gains an considerable amount of "devoted followers" that will make his life even more difficult.

The first thing one notices about "Life of Brian" when compared to the Pythons' previous movie is how structured is the plot, as it is now a fully developed story in terms of narrative. I mean, while of course "Holy Grail" had the running theme of King Arthur, it was still a series of sketches tied together by their style and themes. "Life of Brian" shows the Python style of comedy completely adapted to a cleverly written and well structured narrative that, with their usual mix of witty satire and surreal nonsense, showcases their ideas about organized religions as well as the other social themes (government and other political satire for example) they tend to explore in their work. Very fresh and original, the comedy in "Life of Brian" is top notch, keeping that sense of freedom and irreverence and taking what started in their now legendary "Flying Circus" show to a whole new level. Contrary to what could be thought, the structured narrative enhances the comedy instead of limit it, and makes for a more focused piece of work.

Python member Terry Jones takes again the director's seat (without Terry Gilliam this time), and makes the Python's masterpiece come to life, remaining true to its roots without sacrificing the film's structure. While it's obvious that Jones knows that the film's power is in the script and the cast, he allows himself to showcase his love for ancient history and, taking advantage of the budget (and the locations and leftover sets of 1977's "Jesus of Nazareth"), he sets the wacky story of Brian in a lavish and very realist Jerusalem. The sharp contrast between Jones' care for keeping some historical accuracy and the script's bizarre and surreal humor truly adds a lot to the "Pythonesque" atmosphere of the film, as it feels oddly appropriate within the satiric tone of the movie. With a style more focused on the characters than in the visuals, Jones instead of Gilliam was the natural choice to direct "Life of Brian", as its truly the very well constructed characters what makes the movie the jewel of British humor.

And as always, the Pythons are simply superb in their portrayal of the many characters of the movie. Graham Chapman only plays three roles this time, but he is Brian, and as our main character he perfectly portrays the naiveté of the young idealist man. John Cleese is also excellent in the many characters he plays, but specially as the leader of the People's Front of Judea. Director Terry Jones himself appears as, among others, Brian's mother, making a remarkable character with his peculiar falsetto voice. While I can't single out an actor as the best in the film, I must say that Michael Palin's performance as Pontius Pilate is easily one of the funniest of the movie. Finally, Eric Idle gives the icing in the cake as he sings the Python's most famous song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". As Judith, Sue Jones-Davies makes an effective job, although honestly, her part wasn't very well developed as "Life of Brian", like all Python films, were completely focused on the comedians.

If "Life of Brian" has a fault, it would be that it may feel too long to those unfamiliar with Monty Python's style of humor, as its continuous fast pace never gives a moment to rest. That said, this movie is probably the easiest to "get" as it lacks the surreal randomness of "Holy Grail" or the dark cynism of the sketches in "Meaning of Life", so, in a way, "Life of Brian" is the ideal introduction to Python's humor. I can't write about "Life of Brian" without talking about the controversy it met after released, as it was accused by several religious organizations as being blasphemous and disrespectful to God. While the film is indeed irreverent, it is in no way a direct attack to God, Jesus Christ or the Christian teachings in general, as it is more a satire on the extreme way some religious people follow their leaders blindly without really thinking about it. There is nothing blasphemous in the movie, and in fact it is more humanist than disrespectful or irreligious.

Monty Python's style has proved to be one of the most influential in the history of British comedy, and personally I think that "Life of Brian" is the crowning achievement of their career. The brilliant satire they cleverly put in the movie's script is easily one of the best in history of Brisitsh cinema (well, of film in general), and it's as merciless as it is funny. Religious people should not feel offended by it, as it's real target is extreme fanatism. Zany, irreverent and wild, "Life of Brian" can stand proudly as the Python's movie masterpiece, and while sadly they only made one film after this, it's always better to look on the bright side of life and see it as the testament of their genius.



cinemarchaeologist said...

"Life of Brian" can stand proudly as the Python's movie masterpiece

I have always felt this was the Monty Python troupe's absolute best work. This is an heretical view--most prefer THE HOLY GRAIL--but if one is going to hold to an heretical view, it may as well be about this particular movie.

I suspect the widespread preference for THE HOLY GRAIL is, in part, a consequence of a certain discomfort many have with this movie, and I disagree with you to an extent over the films' alleged blasphemous content. Its target is clearly, as you say, fanaticism, but it's an inherent criticism of Christianity. Brian's life is a direct parallel of the life of Jesus, and it's pretty clear what the boys are getting at (Brian is called Brian solely because it would be too controversial to just call him Jesus). I'd still join you in saying the religious should not reject the movie out of hand--it still has something important to say to them.

"The Dig"

Marin Mandir said...

I personally prefer "The Holy Grail" over "Brian". It has nothing to do with religion, it's just that it wasn't nearly as funny as "Grail". But "Brian" is still better than the rather overhyped "Meaning of Life".

J Luis Rivera said...


cinemarcheologist: The universal appeal of "Holy Grail" baffles me, it's not the most accessible film in the planet and one could even say that it's "target audience" is pretty limited, but still it's their most famous work. I love the film, but I don't see how is it superior to "Brian". Your theory about being that way because of "Brian"'s controversies is pretty strong, that coul dbe the reason.

Marin: do you really think "Meaning of Life" is overhyped? I'd say it's underrated. I don't know many people who prefer it over the other two. I think i's very uneven (some bits are masterpieces, others are pretty poor), but enjoyable.

Thanks for the comments!

cinemarchaeologist said...

I love THE HOLY GRAIL, as well. It's damn funny. It just doesn't cohere so well as a complete work. It's like watching the boys on television. It's exactly what you called it; a series of skits. Some of them work fantastically well, and some of them fall flatter than a two-penny nail. I particularly love the ending, which, oddly enough, fans of the movie tend to see as one of its weaker points. BRIAN works much better as an integrated work, as a more even work, as a more ambitious piece that succeeds, and it's just a lot funnier.

I wouldn't call THE MEANING OF LIFE either overhyped or underrated; I just don't think it's very good. There's a good reason it was the last one.

"The Dig"