How times and obsessions change. When it opened 25 years ago to protests and organized boycotts by the religious right, Monty Python's Life of Brian pretty much proved its central point, namely that zealots are nuts. The self-righteous declared that the movie was blasphemous, all the while most of them proclaimed as loudly that they hadn't actually seen the movie and would do so under no circumstances. Today's fundamentalist Christian moviegoers are spending their time and money watching Jesus get tortured in Mel Gibson's excruciating The Passion of the Christ while a revival of Life of Brian drew almost no attention whatsoever. And the picture could have used some controversy to stimulate interest. As it is, no one paid attention at all. Locally, the picture opened and closed in a week. Those of you who missed it will have to look for it on DVD. And you should. It holds up very well, and it's still a hoot.
With the Monty Python gang writing and playing multiple roles as usual, Life of Brian (directed by Terry Jones) is the story of Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a Bethlehem boy born a few barn stalls down from where Jesus lay in his manger. Years later, Brian is actually present and stirred when Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Mount, but aside from that one time, they seem not to encounter each other. Brian grows up fumbling and insecure, forever harassed by his ill-tempered mother, Mandy (Jones). He sees the heavy hand of Rome's occupying army and determines to join an underground insurgency, of which there are many. When he approaches one group of conspirators to inquire, "Are you the Judean People's Front?" he's banished with curses and the contemptuous admonition that they are the "People's Front of Judea," and that they hate the "Judean People's Front." Today, that joke may invoke thoughts of splintered radical Palestinians rather than radical Jews, but it still works.
Eventually, Brian is admitted into the People's Front of Judea (PFJ) after he's able to pass a difficult test. "If you want to join the People's Front of Judea," he's told, "you have to really hate the Romans." "I do," Brian assures them. "Oh really? How much?" he's asked. "A lot!" Brian avows. "OK, you're in," he's informed.
The PFJ concocts a plot to kidnap the wife of Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). Alas, just as the PFJ tunnels into Pilate's palace they run into another squad of revolutionaries who have likewise arrived to kidnap Pilate's wife. The two gangs might perhaps cooperate, not because they both hate Romans, but because they both hate the Judean People's Front (JPF). But an argument ensues as to which group is to get credit for the kidnapping and the insurgents fall upon each other instead of the Romans. When the JPF finally makes an appearance near the end of the film, the writers seem astonishingly prescient about our own sad times. Members of the JPF rush into a square and promptly stab themselves to death. With his last breath their leader announces, "I guess that showed 'em."
Though a preponderance of the humor is directed at narrow-mindedness and extremism, some is directed at a political correctness that began its journey to inflexibility in celebrating openness and diversity. In one of the film's funniest passages, a PFJ member named Stan (Eric Idle) reveals that he longs to be a woman and henceforth wants to be called Loretta. When PFJ leader Reg (John Cleese) inquires as to why, Stan says he wants to have babies. Reg finds that notion ridiculous because Stan lacks a womb and will not get one just because his friends agree to call him Loretta. Much discussion follows until finally all agree that they shall fight the Roman oppressors for Stan's "right" to have babies even though he can't actually have babies. Wicked.
Pursued by Roman centurions after surviving the PFJ's kidnapping debacle, Brian takes public refuge in Jerusalem's Speaker's Corner where various kooks spew lunatic prophesy to an equally lunatic crowd. A poor public speaker, Brian mutters tepid banalities, but nonetheless manages to attract a following who decide that he is the Messiah, a designation he denies only to be informed by one of his sudden acolytes, "Only the true Messiah would deny his divinity." A disciple named Arthur (Cleese) assures him, "I say you are Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few." In a passage that skewers practically every religion on earth, the followers of Brian quickly splinter into two factions. One believes that his key symbol is a sandal. The other thinks it's a gourd.
I presume that these jabs at religion are what led to charges of blasphemy a quarter century ago. But one wonders how much of this picture the self-righteous even understood. When Brian is crucified at the film's end, the picture's purpose is to parody Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, not the New Testament's Jesus.
- The bright side of life: Michael Palin and Eric Idle, along with the rest of the gang, send up organized religion in Monty Python's Life of Brian.