'Brian': A Blast From the Past
Friday, May 28, 2004
"He's making it up as he goes along!"
That might be the funniest and most trenchant line in "Monty Python's Life of Brian," the 1979 comic classic that is being rereleased this summer as a sort of satiric antidote to the sanctimony that has taken over screen religion in recent months.
The scene takes place in A.D. 33, when a Judean citizen named Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) finds himself taken for the Messiah. The more he demurs -- he actually pretended to be a prophet while trying to escape from the Roman guards who were chasing him -- the more his protestations sound to his followers like divine pronouncements. As one disciple says, the surest sign that someone is a Messiah is that he denies being the Messiah.
Such are the tautologies, inconsistencies and self-fulfilling prophecies of organized religion that the Pythons poke fun at in "Life of Brian," which in the years since its original release in 1979 has retained nearly every bit of its cheeky good humor. From the opening sequence, in which Brian is born in a manger next door to Joseph and Mary's, to the classic closing musical number of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," sung by a chorus of crucified criminals, "Life of Brian" leaves no piety unscathed. And it's the apotheosis of Pythonesque humor, an absurdist grab bag of the non sequiturs, puns and bawdy Britishisms that endeared the comedy troupe to the generation of Americans who came of age during the run of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on TV in the 1970s. If a few of the jokes are dated -- who can laugh wholeheartedly at any line involving terrorists these days? -- the movie still holds up beautifully, as both pointed satire and silly, stakes-free comedy.
The memorable set pieces still work, from the crowd scene at Jesus's Sermon on the Mount ("Did he say, 'Blessed are the cheese makers?' ") to the hilariously interminable sequence during which Michael Palin's Pontius Pilate invokes over and over again a friend back in Rome whose Latin name is a sophomorically funny double-entendre. (You won't watch "Gladiator" again anytime soon without cracking up at Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix's somber Latinate intonations.) The Pythons may have been brilliant, but they weren't above the broadest humor available, including giving speech impediments to Pilate and his friend; viewers are advised to go ahead and laugh -- there will be plenty of time to hate themselves in the morning.
It's easy to forget that, as much fun as the Pythons have at religion's expense, "Life of Brian" was just as much a sendup of lefty sectarian politics. For the first half of the movie, the title character is a member of an anti-imperialist political cell that is determined to rout the Romans out of Judea. With their spot-on depictions of the movement's endless meetings, earnest self-seriousness and rhetorical excess, it's clear that the Pythons were impaling political correctness long before the term made its way into the public vernacular. John Cleese, who like his fellow cast members takes on multiple roles in "Life of Brian," is particularly effective as Reg, the hypocritical tyrant who leads the People's Front of Judea, a splinter group of the Judean People's Front.
Whether he's playing an ancient version of a Weatherman or a Roman guard who forces Brian to correct his Latin while painting "Romans Go Home!" on a garrison wall, Cleese nearly steals the show in "Life of Brian," as does Terry Jones as Mandy, Brian's mother ("Now you listen here," Jones screams in his familiar falsetto when her son's followers show up at her home, "he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy.").
Chapman is suitably bland as the naif who becomes the repository of his disciples' most profound projections and anxieties. And it's in these sequences that "Life of Brian" isn't just ridiculous but sublime.
Given "Brian's" combination of secular humanist whimsy and surprising theological wisdom, it's hard to believe that it was such a controversial film when it first came out. (It was banned in Norway, Ireland and parts of England for blasphemy; in America, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant leaders all denounced it.) Of course, given the current heightened tenor of religious rhetoric and paranoia, it may well wind up pushing brand-new buttons today. To quote Michael Palin quoting Jesus, "There's just no pleasing some people."