Blessed Are the Cheesemakers
In A.D. 2004, as the five remaining members of the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe lie in coffins in a Vanity Fair spread to jeer at their own deaths, it's really nice to have them back together commanding the big screen. Behold anew their wonderfully wiggy Monty Python's Life of Brian as it makes its timely "second coming" after a shocking quarter-century has screamed past.
Brian's primary theme is that -- brace yourself, joyless ones -- religion is kinda stupid. Really, as intoxicants go, not even sex, weaponry and CNN combined have wrought as much damage upon society as religion, and yet people keep acting like it's a good thing. Bah. The Pythons know better, and their rites of hilarity prove infinitely more appealing than actual religious rituals, such as slicing up your baby's genitals, blathering your "sins" to a potential pedophile in a creepy dark box, or annoying everyone with one of those utterly unpleasant jihad thingies. The Pythons offer that it's much wiser and more humane to share big, intelligent laughs over volatile matters, and their nondenominational formula holds strong. In a word: Hallelujah.
Especially given that a dispiriting amount of modern American movie comedy involves somebody pointing to somebody else's pelvic region while making a "wooka-wooka" sound, it's helpful to have brainy British professionals (and one Anglophile Yank) occasionally revive us with blithe repartee. This time, however, unlike Monty Python and the Holy Grail's recent rerelease, the anniversary seems incidental: Henry Jaglom's distribution company is obviously trotting out the original, anarchic Brian (no "Redux") as counter-programming -- and jocular antidote -- to Mad Mel's moronic-if-weirdly-moving Christ juggernaut. But whatever the catalyst, Brian's resurrection ultimately reminds us that, sans wit, faith ain't worth beans.
For those poor souls still outside the fold, and for those ignorant goombahs in 1979 who likened Python to a satanic "serpent" and feebly attempted to protest the film (without having seen it, of course), here's the gist. The movie only peripherally (and respectfully) engages God's son, concerning itself instead with a local yokel named Brian Cohen, or "Brian of Nazareth" (the late, great Graham Chapman). In addition to a rather courageous nude scene with Sue Jones-Davies and hundreds of extras, Brian's hapless kerfuffles with mad politicos, oppressive centurions, slick hucksters, freakish prophets, and especially crazed zealots (all played by Pythons Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, often doubling in the same scenes) lead to comic divinity.
Whether you've memorized the film or you instinctively loathe it, the last thing you probably want to read is a slew of quotes from the hilarious script, but tough luck, here they are. You'll snicker as Brian's "ratbag" mother Mandy (Jones) bellows, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!" You'll titter as the effervescent Mr. Cheeky (Idle) opines of crucifixion, "See? Not so bad once yer up." You'll chortle as the Blood and Thunder Prophet (Gilliam) exclaims, "There will be a great rubbing of parts." You'll guffaw as speech-impaired Pontius Pilate (Palin) swoons, "I have a vewwy gweat fwend in Wome called Biggus Dickus." And you'll screech with immeasurable ecstasy when a suppliant toady (Cleese) begs of frazzled Brian, "How shall we fuck off, O Lord?" Credit the lot for one of the funniest screenplays, literally, in history -- and easily the most consistent of the Python feature efforts.
Whether the film holds up cinematically is another matter. It's solid enough, and yet aesthetically the proceedings now feel somewhat sketchy. The archaic Tunisian locations (where Zeffirelli lensed his epic Jesus of Nazareth) and grainy, oddly timeless film stock lend the project the feel of a classic (albeit a classic wherein characters call one another "cunt"), but the choppy pacing and loose direction frequently detract from the visuals. (A couple of years later, Mel Brooks would copy and master this template with his bigger-budgeted History of the World Part I.) Having tasted sweet autonomy with his crafty Jabberwocky, Gilliam left helming honors to Grail co-director Jones here -- but Gilliam's DIY design presence is felt throughout, especially duking it out with surprise contemporary heavyweight George Lucas in the improbable spaceship scene. Meanwhile, one senses still-dewy Jones struggling between his hilarious multiple characterizations and knowing where to put the camera.
But why nit-pick? Brian's brilliant, saved itself by benefactor George Harrison, who ponied up the budget of two million pounds (note: no "hundred" in that price tag) and formed a superb production company (Handmade Films) simply because he loved the script when industry bigwigs turned characteristically chicken. Its overall irreverence proves a lasting balm for the ages. Thank you, Pythons, for setting such a high and enduring standard.
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