Sunday, September 9, 2012
Monty Python's Life of Brian
Judea, 1st century AD. Three wise men follow a star and arrive at a cottage. They give presents to a baby, Brian, because they consider him the messiah, but retrieve them when they find out they entered the wrong cottage, since the real messiah, Jesus Christ, is his neighbor. 33 years later, Brian discovers that his father was a Roman who abandoned his mother, so he joins the "People's Front of Judea" who want Romans out of Judea. After a failed kidnapping attempt of Pontius Pilate's wife, Brian hides from the Romans by disguising himself as a prophet on a market - but the people actually fall for it and start following him. Brian gets arrested and crucified.
Despite critical acclaim, Monty Python's "Life of Brian" is in the end still rather overrated, not managing to reach the high comic level of their two previous excellent comedies "Holy Grail" and "And Now for Something Completely Different": it has too much forced humor and overstretched anecdotes, but gained widespread attention thanks to overblown "controversies" as one of the first religious satires, even though Jesus Christ is actually presented in respectful manner (he is seen in only one scene, during the serious Sermon on the Mount when the camera slowly pans away from him, until an innocent joke shows up when someone in the audience says: "Speak up!") and the story clearly distinguishes his path from that of Brian, the main protagonist. Even more ironically, the movie doesn't turn into a religious satire until the second half, revolving in the first half only around the clumsy attempts of the "People's Front of Judea".
The story has a fair share of quality jokes, whether they are snappy dialogues ("...So where was I?" - "I think you finished." - "Oh, right."; "A man shall strike his donkey...And his nephew's donkey!") or just plain wacky burlesque (the scene where Pilate threatens to every Roman soldier who dares to laugh at the name of his friend, 'Bigus Dickus', so he constantly mentions his name and even adds the name of his wife, 'Incontinentia Buttocks', upon which the soldiers simply burst into laughter). However, the disappointment is still there: Brian doesn't start acting as a prophet until some 53 minutes into the film (!) which gives too little time for a real satirical jab at some religious dogmas and the "followship" mentality, numerous jokes are simply not that particularly inspirational or funny (i.e. the cheap shot of Brian opening the window and showing up naked in front of the crowd), some are buffoonish while others are downright pointless (the UFO sequence). The only truly brilliant joke aimed at religion is one line said by Brian's mother ("He is not the messiah! Now stop following him!") and the final song, Always Look at the Bright Side of Life is a classic (with the legendary lyrics: "You know, you come from nothing - you're going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing."), but overall the movie is as subtle and as harmonius as "Zardoz". Ironically, a far more sophisticated (and thematically similar) satire about a following was delivered that same year in Ashby's masterwork "Being There". Back in the day, "Brian" was a daring criticism of religion, but today, after Christopher Hitchens and Matt Dillahunty, it looks as tame as a walk in the park .