by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Terry Jones
CAST: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 96% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Controversial Film”
PLOT: Born on the very first Christmas in the stable next door to Jesus Christ, Brian of Nazareth spends his life being mistaken for a messiah.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Let the record show this was originally going to be a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but the author had just seen 2 or 3 dramatic films in a row and apparently decided it was time to switch gears a bit. Complaints about this adjustment may be directed to the author’s colleague, Marc Sanders, who promises to reply to each and every complaint at about the same time hell freezes over. ]
Life of Brian is widely considered Monty Python’s tightest, most well-written film, even if it’s not quite as hysterically funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I agree. I can speculate that this is due to the subject matter, and so great care needed to be taken to ensure that viewers would not mistakenly think the film was poking fun at the Jesus Christ Himself. On the contrary, right from the very opening, it’s quite clear this movie is not about Jesus, but about the poor sod who was born in the stable next door and the deluded individuals who continually mistake HIM for a messiah as a grown man. (“…how shall we f*** off, oh lord?”)
But that didn’t stop the mighty train of offensensitivity from rolling right along. To wit:
- Norway banned the film for a year.
- Ireland banned it until 1987.
- A town in Wales banned it until 2009, after a cast member was elected Mayor.
- A town in Britain banned it until 2015.
However, no amount of bans and protests could prevent Life of Brian from becoming an integral part of the cinematic comedy landscape. At the annual Venice Film Festival, the Premio Brian (Brian Award) is awarded to the most rationalist/atheist movie presented at the festival. It was named the funniest comedy of all time by the BBC’s Channel Four, beating out Groundhog Day and The Full Monty. In 1982, during the Falklands War, sailors aboard a severely damaged British vessel started singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” while awaiting rescue. You can’t BUY that kind of publicity.
After a brief prologue in which the Three Wise Men visit the wrong manger by mistake (“We were led by a star!” BRIAN’S MOTHER: “Led by a bottle, more like!”), we jump ahead to when Brian is just about Graham Chapman’s age, struggling to hear the Sermon on the Mount from a distance (“Blessed are the cheesemakers?!”). Much like Holy Grail, the film is punctuated by sketches, some of which are pauses in the action, but most of which still manage to carry the story forward. That’s quite a feat when you consider their subsequent film, The Meaning of Life, was composed entirely of self-contained sketches, albeit with a common theme. The fact that the Pythons were able to rein themselves in and keep things relatively lean is rather admirable.
If I kept relating plot developments and summaries of sketches and funny quotes, I would be here all day:
- The “Biggus Dickus” scene.
- The stoning.
- The unexpected Latin lesson.
- “What have the Romans ever given us?”
- Graham Chapman’s willy. (Hey, it’s a memorable scene, shut up.)
If I must be honest, though, I was never, and still am not, a fan of the film’s ending. Yes, I get the supreme, absurd irony of the situation juxtaposed with that cheerful song, but…to be honest, it’s always felt like the Pythons said, “Okay, so we’re here, aaaaand…now what? Any ideas? No? Okay, let’s end the movie.” Perhaps they always meant to end it that way. So be it. But I’m selfish. I wanted just a little more. …although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure what kind of mileage you could get out of a bunch of people at a tomb waiting for someone to emerge, but never does. There’s a joke there, somewhere, but I’m not the one to tell it.
There is one scene that I found VERY interesting. It never stood out before, but it does now. People are fond of saying, “Well, you could never make Blazing Saddles today.” Perhaps, but I bet the chances are even slimmer of someone trying to make Life of Brian today, and even if someone did, the scene in question would probably not make it to the final cut.
Picture this: Four members of the People’s Front of Judea (NOT to be mistaken for the Judean People’s Front…those splitters) are trying to decide something when one of the male members, Stan, reveals he wants to be a woman and asks everyone to start calling him “Loretta.” The others ask him why, and he says, “I want to have babies…It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them!” “But you can’t HAVE babies!” retorts Reg, “you haven’t got a WOMB! Where’s the fetus gonna gestate, you gonna keep it in a box?!” They eventually agree that Stan/Loretta can’t actually HAVE babies, but they will fight for his RIGHT to have babies. “It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression!” (“…symbolic of his struggle against reality…” grumbles Reg.) [Ed. note: view the full scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlo7YZW8vPA ]
If you ask me, in today’s society, if that scene were to appear in a contemporary film, even in an obviously comic context like this one, it would become an even bigger controversy than “Nipplegate.” Forget about all the religious overtones and perceived (but non-existent!) blasphemy. All it would take is for one person to call that scene out, and Monty Python would be on the road to social cancellation faster than you can say, “Carla’s your uncle.”
ANYWAY. As a lifelong fan of the Pythons, I consider Life of Brian their high-water mark in terms of storytelling and contextual comedy. If it’s not quite as funny as Holy Grail, well, I ask you, what is? Any arguments about the movie being blasphemous are easily deflated by pointing out it’s not about Jesus. It’s about this other idiot and the group-thinking idiots who follow him. Case closed.
QUESTION FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
Best line or memorable quote:
(Talk about being spoiled for choice…it’s a little out of context, but if you know, you know:)
“He has a wife, you know. Do you know what she’s called? Incontinentia. …Incontinentia Buttocks.”
After watching the film, can you see both sides of the controversy surrounding it?
I can acknowledge that two sides exist (or existed), but the anti-Brian argument is pointless because, once again for the cheap seats, the movie is not about Jesus. It can’t be blasphemous if it barely even mentions His name. My two cents.