Monty Python’s Life of Brian. 1979. Directed by Terry Jones. Screenplay by Graham Chapman/John Cleese/Terry Gilliam/Eric Idle/Terry Jones/Michael Palin.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
Growing up in Newfoundland on the far edge of Canada, I was subjected to quite a bit of British television and comedy in general while growing up. Particularly, my dad introduced me to Monty Python when I was about 10-years old. After that, an actor friend and myself would do little bits inspired by Python at our school festivals and talent shows; dressing up, putting on voices, doing anything we could to get our Python on.
When I get older and could truly appreciate a lot of the social, political, religious satire in Monty Python’s best work, their comedy became something even more important to me. Behind the silly voices and strange animations from Terry Gilliam, and all the upfront nonsense of it all, this is one masterful group of comedians. Together they’ve left an indelible impression on the face of comedy, one that can never be denied nor will it ever be forgotten.
I’m not sure what I think their best overall work is, it is a hard decision to try and make. While the group, especially John Cleese, have said they think The Meaning of Life is one of their weaker works, that’s actually one of my favourites to be honest. At the same time, everything they do is magic. Certainly, Life of Brian is undoubtedly the greatest religious satire of all-time. Their offhand treatment of the life of Jesus Christ becomes the work of genius, from penis jokes to puns to a perpetual mockery of all things Christian, Monty Python’s Life of Brian will always be a definitive classic in the comedy genre.
Brian Cohen of Nazareth (Graham Chapman) is born on the same day as Jesus of Nazareth. They both diverge on different paths of life, however, Brian keeps getting confused for a Messiah. Along the way, Brian meets all sorts and kinds. Joining a resistance against the Romans in Judea, Brian unwittingly becomes more of a prophet than he’d ever intended. In fact he doesn’t much aspire to be anything of the sort, instead this leads him on much the same path as poor ole J.C.
“I think it was ‘blessed are the cheesemakers’”
“A-ha, what‘s so special about the cheesemakers?”
“Well, obviously it‘s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.“
Nowadays when so many take quick and easy jabs at religion in all its forms – whether it’s the Roman Catholics or the Muslims or the Evangelical Christians or Santería – I always love to go back to some of the best religious satire there is: Monty Python.
While there are most certainly more than a share of cheap jokes, as there usually ends up being – and I always love some good quick and easy shots – the intelligence overshadows it all. The way Python takes on issues which are far ahead of the time is insane.
I love the scene where Eric Idle’s a man who wants to be a woman; every single time that god damn scene kills me. Idle himself is funny enough. The way John Cleese and Michael Palin play off him is riotous.
Afterwards when Brian Cohen meets the members of the resistance, I can never stop laughing.
Brian: “Excuse me – are you the Judean People’s Front?”
Reg: “Fuck off – Judean People’s Front. We’re the People’s Front of Judea! Judean People’s Front.”
Part of the strength of Python, obviously, is that there are so many characters they can play with the lot of them on board. However, I really do love the fact it’s Graham Chapman who plays Brian. There’s something about an openly gay man satirising the life of Jesus Christ that warms my heart. Especially seeing as how this was made just before the turn of the decade in 1979. Part of Chapman’s love of satire towards Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church I’m sure was born out of the injustices he faced as a young gay man growing up in 1950s/60s England. A lot of great bits throughout the whole of Python’s work, but so direct here with Chapman as Brian Cohen. He’s perfect, too. Plays that sort of sweet idiot that Brian is so well. He can play such a range of different comedic parts, this type of character he nails spot-on here.
Brian: “I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly.”
Girl: “Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.”
Brian: “What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right – I am the Messiah!”
Followers: “He is! He is the Messiah!”
Brian: “Now, fuck off!”
Arthur: “…..how shall we fuck off, O Lord?“
Then there’s some cheap stuff as I call it – but I don’t mean that in a bad way. I simply mean the quicker, easiest jokes. And still, under the control of Monty Python even the silliest little jokes can bring about the biggest laughs.
For instance, Michael Palin’s whole bit as Biggus Dickus is beyond funny. Apparently he was actually daring the extras to laugh – they were told to stand and try not to. So there’s greatness there. I can only imagine what filming this, or any Python work must have been like.
Palin is a good one for those bust out laughing bits. When Brian talks to the old man chained to wall – Palin in a raggedy costume and beard – it brings tears to my eyes. He goes absolutely mad, ranting and raving to Brian, laughing and grovelling for the Romans. It’s an awesomely satirical little scene.
Pontius Pilate is another hilariously played role from Palin, included is an excruciatingly misunderstood lisp. When he has Brian Cohen struck in the face by his Centurion guard (Cleese), the way Chapman reacts to the slap is unreal. I don’t know why, it simply cracks me to pieces. Cleese keeps on slapping Chapman, and the reaction is priceless each and every time. This is another example of what I say when I mean the cheap jokes – it isn’t an insult, I’m only referring to the easier, less thoughtful jokes. They’re still some of the funny moments which get me most to be honest. Even while there’s enough well-done satire to fill your boots, those dirty, silly jokes get me as much, or more.
Another classic bit is Brian with the aliens. I mean, only in Monty Python would you get that intergalactic stuff mixed in with the religious aspects of this story! Perfect.
When the spacecraft crashes and Brian walks out, the guy says “Ooh you lucky bastard“, which for whatever reason strikes me extremely funny. I always love the British accent and the way it can make things funny sometimes simply by virtue of how it can sound; even while something in essence may not be funny, the Brits can make me laugh with how they say certain things, the inflection and purpose in their voice.
So many incredible scenes throughout Life of Brian. I can never have enough time to go on about every last one. I’d like to at least go through a few more.
In the market, when Eric Idle’s character won’t let Brian Cohen walk away without haggling it’s pure gold. Just plays upon all the socioeconomic daily lives of people in the supposed time of Christ.
Need to mention John Cleese more because his subtle, laid back comedy styling is impeccable. His exchange with an old man Matthias is a riot!
Matthias: “Could be worse”
Centurion: “What you mean, could be worse?”
Matthias: “Well, you could be stabbed.”
Centurion: “Stabbed? Takes a second. Crucifixion lasts hours. It’s a slow, horrible death.”
Matthias: “Well at least it gets you out in the open air”
Centurion: “You’re weird”
The greatest part, in my opinion, is the way the crowd of people latch onto and follow Brian Cohen. It’s a perfectly satirical take on the mob of Christianity, people gluing themselves to Jesus Christ and his words, following him blindly and foolishly even in the most silly, irrelevant rituals culled up out of nowhere from nothing but perceived clues and nonsense. Amazing stuff illustrated perfectly as they fight over the left-behind sandal of Brian, as he runs away from the mob believing him to be some type of saviour/the Messiah. Makes me laugh uncontrollably watching them get into a tussle over his shoe, pondering the meaning of what its being left for them to find might reveal in the grand scheme of the teachings of Brian Cohen.
Brian: “Who cured you?”
Ex-Leper: “Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! ‘You’re cured, mate.’ Bloody do-gooder.“
The scene with Brian jumping in the hole with Terry Jones playing a man who’d taken a vow of silence for eighteen years is COMEDY GOLD. As Cohen jumps down, he lands on the man’s foot prompting a loud shout. Then of course the man figures what the hell – he shouts and screams because the vow is broken. I mean, if that’s not a nice laugh, what is? Little silly bits like this take on a whole new form with Python. What might seem like a dumb joke elsewhere is hilarious because the Pythons SELL IT! Always their triumph: each and every one of them is a master at selling the comedy. This is merely one scene where we get to see that so clearly. A ton of those throughout Life of Brian.
But then even further, the crowd following Brian mistakenly believes he cured the silent man of his 18 years of silence. It puts me into fits each time. The whole scene at that juncture is beyond funny.
Reg: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?“
There are too many instances of perfect comedy throughout the film. When Brian wakes up, opens his window naked to a ton of followers in the street, I’m tearing up. Again and again, this movie puts me into fits of laughter. I’m a die hard Monty Python fan and I’ve got no problem giving this a full 5 star rating. Not only that, Life of Brian is absolutely the greatest religious satirical comedy ever made, and perhaps the best that ever will be made. It came at the right time, with the right laughs and jokes included, from the right group in Python. Nothing can beat it.
If you have not seen this, please do soon. This will never feel dated to me, it’s so perfectly relevant because it takes on a lot of funny things within Christianity, and religion in general at times. So do yourself a favour, check this comedy out and your funny bone will thank you!