PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Bill Gibron

This time around, Life of Brian might be seen for what it is: an icon of irreverent comic brilliance.


Monty Python's Life of Brian

Director: Terry Jones
Cast: Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox
First date: 1979
US Release Date: 2004-04-30 (Limited release)

Religion may be comedy's last taboo. Over the last several decades, some films have tried to treat the Good Book as farce. But juvenile affairs like Wholly Moses (1980) and ...And God Spoke (1994) didn't cause even the most passionate genuflector a moment's worry. In 1979, Monty Python's Life of Brian struck a chord with the devoted, and the condemnations came loud and strong. Though it actually had little to do with the Messiah or his wisdom, this liturgical laugh-fest from Britain's rock stars of comedy was considered sacrilegious.

It's sad to say it, but Life of Brian (currently re-released by Rainbow Film Company, to ride The Passion of the Christ's considerable coattails) might be more controversial today than it was in 1979. When it first opened, protesters treated Python's Gospel gobbledygook much like Martin Scorsese's blistering The Last Temptation of Christ. In Brian's case, the original financers backed out, and it took an influx of cash from the late George Harrison to keep the project afloat.

The more fundamental question, however, was why Monty Python (Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam), who spent their BBC/PBS series skewering British uptightness, take on the sacrosanct subject of the Savior? In fact, Brian does not lampoon Jesus Christ, his teachings or his importance as a religious icon. Indeed, it's more a scathing satire on mob mentality, government bureaucracy, and cult ideology.

One might well remember the era in which it was conceived: the Reverend Jim Jones inspired his followers in Guyana to suicide during the year of the film's production (1978). Patty Hearst's kidnapping was still a hot story, as the former hostage of the Symbionese Liberation Army was serving jail time. Everywhere, the social activism of the '60s was fading into the hedonism of the '70s, informed by Watergate and the drug-fueled disco lifestyle. And so, Python endeavored to wake up the masses by making a movie depicting faith as a fool's paradise.

It was Eric Idle who first threw out the idea of a religious epic. After the successful medieval spoof, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the troupe was looking for another genre to deconstruct. Someone suggested the old-fashioned Cecil B. DeMille Bible ballyhoo and Idle visualized a send-up of Christianity. With a working title, "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory," the debaucherous brainstorming began. They came up with the story of Brian (played with grace and goofiness by Chapman), the reluctant prophet, a simple man constantly mistaken for the King of the Jews. From his birth in a manger right next door to Christ's, to his unexplained rise as a spiritual emblem for the sheep-like folks of Judea, Brian remains an incorruptible innocent, even amid massive upheaval.

Life of Brian's cleverly crafted script stretches stupidity to its limits. And it's become even more relevant, as events in the Middle East escalate. The film explores extremism, the Romans' bullying set against the violent elements within the Jewish community. Brian's odyssey has him falling into a political party (The People's Front of Judea, not to be confused with the Judean People's Front), dead set on freeing their homeland from the crucifying influence of Rome.

Of course, the movie takes time out from its philosophizing for classic Python skits, as when the stoning of a Jehovah-spouting heretic becomes a short sketch plot stop. And when Brian is given the task of graffito-tagging a government wall with the Latin phrase for "Romans Go Home!", the lesson in the dead language by John Clesse's cranky Centurion is another spoof of public education. Unlike Holy Grail's series of skits, or Meaning of Life (1983), a cradle to grave collection of vignettes, Life of Brian seems like a linear film, thanks mostly to Terry Jones' delicious direction, expertly meshing cartoon lunacy with the history of the authentic locations.

At the same time, Brian's coming of age, both physically and emotionally, is handled with skill and seriousness. And, of course, he pays the ultimate price, which makes Life of Brian less an allegory than a cautionary example. It argues that freedom of thought is rare and precious, not to be taken lightly. Toss in a little full frontal nudity, some frightfully funny foul language, and a barrage of non-PC speech impediments, and you've got one of the best comedies of the '70s.

There will be those who complain that any film taking potshots at the Prince of Peace has its priorities all wrong. But Life of Brian is anything but blasphemous. The only time Christ Himself is depicted in the film is during the Sermon on the Mount, and then it's the audience who is the butt of the joke, as they misunderstand and misapply His poetic words. The movie treats the Son of God as an unfathomable good, while those who would follow Him are depicted as merely human by nature and design.

Brian asks us to consider our beliefs. Certainly, its cheeky jabs at organized religion enhance its mix of satire and insanity. But make no mistake: Life of Brian is no more comically derogatory to Christianity than Mel Gibson's preachy Passion. This time around, Life of Brian might be seen for what it is: an icon of irreverent comic brilliance. The members of Python showed that any subject, taboo or not, could survive a sardonic tweaking, as long as it was done with intelligence and wit. Ironically, one of Brian's most beautiful bad taste moments has become a special symbol. Eric Idle's musical ode to optimism in the face of adversity, the crucifixion croon-along, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," is a pop hit, football stadium chant, and Jack Nicholson's theme in As Good As It Gets. It's a sentiment that's hard to resist.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.