Review: The Life of Brian
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Ordinarily, nothing would be further from the point about Monty Python’s Life of Brian than the film’s reverence or lack of same toward the Christian faith. But with the film widely condemned, and even cancelled, on the basis of “blasphemy” and “sacrilege,” the issue becomes germane. Personally, I’ve been at a loss to find any such attitudes evident in the film, and have had to conclude that those who condemn it haven’t seen it, or didn’t know what they were looking at when they did. True enough, The Life of Brian inverts the Judaeo-Christian tradition by depicting the Romans as civilized and sophisticated, the Hebrews as hopelessly confused, uneducated, sloppy, and vicious. But the Romans come in for their share of jabs, too, in a series of gags based mainly on speech defects, physical handicaps, and sexual proclivities. This portrayal of the Romans seems broadly influenced by the popular BBC dramatization of Robert Graves’s I, Claudiusâ€”and far from being a parenthetical observation, that is precisely the point about The Life of Brian: it isn’t spoofing religion, it’s spoofing a genre.
Before The Life of Brian, I had long since given the Python group up as hopelessly bankrupt in the fresh-material department; but here, returning to the film-spoof atmosphere of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they have delivered their best film yet, a sharp parody of Biblical spectaculars and the mock-reverence that Hollywood so often gives to that genre. (One of the sharpest barbs is in the music, which lampoons Miklos Rozsa’s Ben-Hur score in the same way that Holy Grail lampooned his Ivanhoe music.) The oppressed Jews become contemporary Mid-East terrorists, but their movement dissolves into the inactivity of debate and resolution-passing. A terrorist graffitist is given a stern Latin lesson by an outraged Roman, and made to write his epithet (ROMANI ITE DOMUM) a hundred times as punishment. The instant reverence Brian’s followers have for a new religious leader quickly splits into two rival cults, with disciples uncertain whether sandal-worship or gourd-worship is indicated. Physical deformity is omnipresent, playing on the historical reality as well as the unwholesome fixation of both Biblical literature and Biblical movies for this aspect of ancient life. As in Holy Grail and Jabberwocky, the Python group creates its uniquely appalling brand of comedy out of the fusion of genre parody with their cynical view of the grimmer realities of human behavior.
Far from railing against religion and the Christian message, The Life of Brian expresses a healthy comic outrage at the wasteful stupidity of humankind. The climax of the irony, and of the film, is a lighthearted production number, “Look on the Bright Side,” sung by a chorus of crucified Jews as the camera recedes to longshot. It’s got it both ways, since it’s a bitter comment on human cruelty, as well as an indomitable plea that literally nothing is to be taken seriously. In a sense, the whole film is summed up (quite consistently with Christ, by the way) in the scene in which Brian encounters a beggar who seeks alms on the basis that he is a former leper. Christ, it seems, cured the man, thereby taking away his whole source of income and plunging him into economic depression. After the former leper has followed Brian for several blocks, skipping and dancing about while he tells of his plight, Brian finally gives him a coin. The supplicant looks at the coin and exclaims, “‘alf a dinari for me bloody life’s story?!” Walking away, Brian mutters, “There’s no pleasin’ some people.” Dancing away through the streets, the beggar sings out, “That’s just what Jesus said!”
© 1980 Robert C. Cumbow
THE LIFE OF BRIAN
Direction: Terry Jones. Screenplay: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin. Cinematography: Peter Biziou. Design and animation: Terry Gilliam. Editing: Julian Boyle. Music: Geoffrey Burgan.
The players: Monty Python (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin).