WFTB Score: 19/20
The plot: Brian of Nazareth reaches adulthood in a Judea under Roman occupation, but his anti-Roman actions are fired not so much by the People’s Front of Judea’s political beliefs but a desire to get close to its only (properly) female member, Judith. As he attempts to prove his mettle, he inadvertently attracts the attention and devotion of a group of devoted followers who hang on his every word. They cannot save Brian, however, when the Roman Legions catch up with him.
The history of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the group behind it has filled many a large book, and in each discussion of their third feature film (after the compilation And Now for Something Completely Different and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) makes for one of the longest chapters. At the time, Life of Brian was the subject of immense controversy centred around the supposedly blasphemous nature of the film; thankfully, that has largely subsided and what remains for most is an appreciation of one of the most finely-crafted comedies of all time.
After a pre-credits sequence which sees the Three Wise Men paying misguided homage to Brian and his crackpot/pepperpot mother (not named in the film, but I believe her name’s Mandy), the film proper sees an adult Brian (Graham Chapman) living in Judea with his mum (Terry Jones), who is friendly with the occupying Romans to the extent that Brian himself is half-Roman. When Brian spots Judith (Sue Jones-Davies) in a crowd he is besotted and seeks her out among the company of the People’s Front of Judea, or PFJ, but their irascible leader Reg (John Cleese) sets conditions for Brian’s entry into the movement.
Brian completes his initiation but a bungled kidnap attempt in Pontius Pilate’s (Michael Palin) house makes him the target of Roman soldiers, and during one of his escapes Brian’s vagueness makes him fascinating to bystanders when he is forced to pose as a preacher. The bystanders quickly become a mob who pursue Brian despite his entreaties, much to the displeasure of his mother who (famously) tells them he’s definitely not a Messiah; but just when it seems Brian’s sudden popularity is finally going to galvanise the PFJ into action the Romans arrest him, and even a last-minute reprieve from crucifixion is hijacked by a cheeky fellow criminal (Eric Idle).
To deal with the controversy first: of course the visit of the Wise Men, Brian’s being taken for a Messiah and his crucifixion invite comparisons to the story of Jesus, but it would take a wilfully stupid person not to notice that JESUS IS IN THE MOVIE! (apologies for shouting, but it needs to be said). The infant Christ appears as the true target of the Magi’s worship, and immediately after the credits Brian watches the adult Jesus preaching his sermon on the mount; he is not mocked, satirised or made a figure of fun in any way whatsoever. Those determined to be offended must be insisting that:
- Nobody born around Christ’s time must be represented in film for fear of contamination by association,
- Nobody else must be taken as a Messiah in a film for the same reason (which kind of ruins it for other religions)
- Nobody must be crucified in a film as it makes a mockery of Christ’s endurance (shame about Spartacus, then – and the superb “I’m Brian and so’s my wife” joke here).
Christian or not, it only takes a second’s consideration to realise that these objections are ludicrous. Life of Brian doesn’t seek to say anything about Christ’s life, instead satirising the obsessive and often thoughtless nature of belief and the pointless schisms that religion often provokes (more directly, the PFJ as a commentary on the fractured nature of Middle East politics is as true now as it was in 1979).
So, back to the comedy. It may sound daft to compare a comedy film imposing modern English idioms and quirks onto two thousand-year-old history with Shakespeare, but several lines from Life of Brian have passed into popular parlance (“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”, “One total catastrophe is just the beginning”, “Splitter!”) and will no doubt stay there for hundreds of years to come. The writing is of such quality, and such a seamless meld of the Pythons’ writing styles, that the film flows rather than feeling like a succession of sketches and still feels fresh, offering surprises even on double-digit viewings. And Life of Brian goes far beyond the simply silly or ‘Pythonesque’ (the spaceship sequence – since the effects look cheap amongst Terry Gilliam’s otherwise immaculate art direction – is possibly the only misstep in the entire film) to deliver a consistently entertaining film.
Chapman is both comic and genuinely sympathetic as the luckless Brian, whilst Palin has enormous fun as the speech-troubled Pilate and a number of smaller characters (his ex-leper is great). Essentially, though, Cleese dominates the film – in a good way. Whether he’s the lecturing priest, Reg, the aggressive centurion or Brian’s chief zealot (“I say you are, Lord, and I should know, I’ve followed a few!”), Cleese is brilliant. His half-crazed earnestness helps to counterbalance the flimsiness of some of Idle’s characters; but this is no criticism, since the choice of the lounge song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life to end the film is absolutely inspired, sending the audience out with a whistle rather than a depressing scene on their minds.
In short, if you haven’t seen Life of Brian, ignore the supposed controversy and watch it ASAP. The spaceship apart, it’s only really the fact that Brian runs away from people once or twice too often that stops this from being the perfect comedy, filled as it is with memorable characters and reams of quotable lines. Pythons’ finest hour and in all probability the high-point of British film comedy.