Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s winter film series Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. For more information, visit tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian has been called many things, including brilliant, irreverent and even blasphemous. Of the three, only the last one is incorrect. Yes, the film pokes fun at the legend of Jesus, but not directly and more mocks blind faith and people who talk a good game but do nothing. The film garnered the blasphemous label because it is about a man who is, let’s say, Jesus adjacent.
The titular Brian (Graham Chapman) was born the same night as Jesus, just in a different manger not far away and is therefore mistaken by the wise men as Jesus, only to be corrected moments later. As Brian ages, he sees a girl and instantly falls in love with her, going so far as to join the People’s Front of Judea, a pseudo-terrorist group that is together to fight the Romans. The only real trouble is that they just sit around and pass resolutions without ever actually doing anything (the only time they try something, everyone but Brian dies). His love for Judith (Sue Jones-Davis) leads him through a lot of difficulties eventually getting him crucified.
Life of Brian. . .represents their most sustained plot and greatest achievement in their limited film catalogue as a troupe.
That plot may not sound very funny, but it is difficult to go into great detail with a film this consistently funny without trying to go into the jokes, and that would rob the reader of the truly marvelous experience of witnessing them for themselves and for those that have seen the film, it would be tiresome and not nearly as funny as actually seeing the film.
The film, written by and starring Chapman as Brian as well as in other roles, and the other members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gillium, all in a myriad of roles throughout the film (sometimes different characters within the same scene), is episodic in nature, going from one sketch to another yet still maintaining a cohesive structure, quite unlike their first feature Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which is still a fantastic film) and their third and final film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (an incredibly funny yet wildly uneven film with a flimsy through line). This film represents their most sustained plot and greatest achievement in their limited film catalogue as a troupe.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian proves that high-brow and low-brow comedy can coexist not only in the same film, but in the same scene.
To be fair, though, the film does still have some sequences that baffle the mind at their inclusion. Most notably is a special effects sequence wherein Brian is saved from falling off an incomplete tower by a small spaceship piloted by two bizarre looking aliens. The ship flies off to space but is pursued by another vessel and is shot down, killing the aliens but Brian escapes unscathed. This odd little interlude feels out of place, since it has no bearing on the film whatsoever, yet it somehow strangely works because Brian has been out of his depth in everything he’s attempted throughout the film, so why not have aliens rescue him? To boot, the creature design is rather good and the stop-motion effects of the ships flying and fighting are reasonable as well. It feels as though the troupe just decided to include that for fun and given their history, they probably wanted people to be scratching their heads over the scene.
All of this is thanks to the peerless writing skills of the Monty Python troupe. Often breaking up sections to be worked on by the writing partners that were established during their run on television, each sequence is funny in its own way, but all of it gels perfectly together and never feels disjointed. The strong main plot of Brian and his woes is the backbone for many an offbeat and brilliant bit, ranging from a centurion correcting the grammar of Brian’s graffiti and forcing him to write Romans Go Home 100 times as punishment for getting the Latin wrong on his first attempt to Brian being mistaken for the Messiah after he failed to complete a sentence that he stole from Jesus’ beatitudes while preaching in a square to avoid being noticed by Roman soldiers. There are just as many jokes that are just funny as there are ones that are pointed and meant to call attention to things like blind faith and resolving to actions that are never taken. The group never attacks Christianity, as detractors of the film will say they do, they attack unthinking devotion and the things that make religion in general easy to satirize (apart from believing in an invisible man). Never once do they attack or mock anything about Jesus, only the people that would unquestioningly follow someone due to veiled words. The film also boasts one of the best and oddest endings of a comedy of all time: a large group of people being crucified singing a song call ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
As for the acting in the film, Chapman is dynamic as Brian. This is his best part, even better than his King Arthur in Holy Grail. He is utterly believable as the schmuck that never gets things to go his way, no matter how hard he tries and when things finally look like they might be up, he gets arrested and crucified. Chapman fills the role with pathos and humor, never once letting his concentration faultier, which is amazing considering he was a raging alcoholic who spent little time sober by this point in his life (the disease would ultimately take his life a decade later). Almost as if to counter his earnest performance as Brian, Chapman also plays the ridiculous Roman general Bigus Dickus, a friend of Pontius Pilot (played by Michael Palin), both of whom have hilarious speech impediments.
That leads to the supporting cast of the Pythons. Cleese takes on the least amount of roles at 6, with Palin showing up the most times as 12 different characters throughout the film. The other members fall somewhere in between. One may think that having the same people take on different roles would get confusing and weaken the film, but you don’t know Monty Python if you believe that. Each character is distinct from the actor’s other parts and each one is funny in a different way and who’s who is never confusing.
Director/writer/star Terry Jones, along with production designer/animator/writer/actor Terry Gillium, worked hard to create a realistic setting for their farce. Filming in Tunisia to get the look and feel of Israel right and with Gillium making sure that the buildings and sets were as close to period authentic as they could, the pair what could have been dismissed and made it into one of the great comedies. This level of realism juxtaposed with the utter silliness of the content legitimizes what, with poorer production value, could have been dismissed as a vulgar attack on Christianity and forgotten, despite its pedigree.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian proves that high-brow and low-brow comedy can coexist not only in the same film, but in the same scene. The boldness of the Python’s venture with this film is still refreshing today and remains one of the most cleverly conceived comedies ever produced. Like The Great Dictator and To Be or Not To Be before it, the films willingness to take on powers that are often strong enough to squash derision makes it all the stronger and funnier in the end.
Monty Python's Life of Brian is bold, clever filmmaking, with a captivating performance by Graham Chapman. As irreverent as it is funny, Life of Brian may be the comedy troupe's greatest cinematic achievement.