Back in 1979, a fellow by the name of George Harrison — a genuine seeker of spiritual enlightenment and a former member of a not-wholly-obscure Brit music group — created Handmade Films specifically for the purpose of releasing the Monty Python opus Life of Brian. This was after the company originally slated to release the film had caved in to pressure from certain religious groups that were determined to keep this “sacrilegious” movie from the eyes of the public. How these naysayers knew that Brian was sacrilegious, not ever having seen it, is open to question — as might be the degree of their faith if they seriously thought Christianity could be brought down by an English comedy troupe.
And all that their vociferous objections actually accomplished, of course, was a great deal of free publicity for Brian, and the formation of a new motion-picture company (the existence of which would help to enliven the dreary 1980s with offerings like Mona Lisa, Time Bandits, Withnail & I, Track 29 and How to Get Ahead in Advertising). For this, we movie fans are all in debt to the protestors — I, for one, would like to take this occasion to thank them personally.
Thus, we should now honor their unintended accomplishment by making the spiritual pilgrimage to see, on the big screen, the movie that started it all in this, its 25th-anniversary return engagement — or “second coming,” as the advertising has it. (And while it’s ironic to think that all the sound and fury surrounding The Passion of the Christ spurred Brian‘s re-release, an anniversary re-issue was slated long before the Passion brouhaha ever happened.) Seeing this film about an accidental messiah is an apt way of honoring those inadvertent patrons of the arts.
The real irony here, though, is that Brian is not actually a parody of Jesus Christ — regardless of how much its detractors (and some of its supporters) might wish it were. In fact, Jesus (Ken Colley, who — make of it what you will — once played Adolf Hitler in a Ken Russell TV film) only appears briefly during the entire proceedings. The movie instead follows the story of Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), who’s inadvertently pegged as the messiah by three directionally challenged wise men (Graham Chapman again, John Cleese, Michael Palin). This sets the course of Brian’s life as he’s continually mistaken for the savior by a growing covey of followers — even up to his all-singing crucifixion.
The thrust of it all isn’t Jesus Christ, but rather the manner in which people are prone to latching onto a belief — any belief — and then are unable to fathom questioning it further. And that doesn’t even take into account the absurd lengths to which the faithful might go in their efforts to follow their leader’s wishes. (When Brian exhorts the mob at one point to “f**k off!,” they dutifully inquire, “How shall we f**k off, O Lord?”) The film also makes sport of the idea that dubious reportage was possible in the case of the real Jesus, when someone in the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount becomes convinced that the phrase “Blessed are the peace makers” is actually singling out cheese makers.
All this is certainly in Brian; in fact, it’s fairly central to the film. And, sure, this is exactly the sort of material that might raise the hackles of some viewers. But for anyone open-minded enough to consider it, Brian actually raises several compelling questions for theological debate — a discussion that’s not nearly as one-sided as it might seem. In fact, the Python film may well be one of the better movies ever made on the topic of religion and religious belief. It also feels a good bit more realistic than most Biblical epics, if only because it doesn’t sanitize, glamorize or turn its characters into unbelievable creations who speak as if they just know people will be quoting and misquoting them a couple of thousand years later.
Better still, all of this is housed in an uproariously funny comedy of the sort that could only come from the Python troupe. While Brian is not quite up to the standards of the earlier Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of wild invention or cinematic power, it nonetheless runs that near-perfect piece of Pythonism a close second. And as with Holy Grail, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got it on DVD — it’s still a work that demands being seen on the big screen in order to achieve its full impact.
Director Terry Jones and the other Pythons fully appreciated that in order to spoof the religious epic, it was necessary — at least so far as their budget would allow — to make a film that could qualify as such on its own terms. And that’s exactly the movie they made.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke