Only a comedy troupe as tasteless as Monty Python could have made “Life of Brian,” a film where literacy coexists with vulgarity. A lot of their movies are like that. There’s a part in “Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’” where they all sing an elaborate musical number about sperm. If that’s your cup of tea, don’t miss this one.
Before the new “‘Life of Brian’ – The Immaculate Edition” DVD came out, you might have had to buy the costly Criterion edition ($39.95). The new DVD has just as many special features for about half as much ($24.96), including a bonus read-through of their original screenplay. The best thing about the read-through is that the dialogue alone is strong enough to work without visuals explaining it: Their wording is crucial to the experience, which might explain why fans are able to quote all the words from their films and skits.
The film is a religious parable where all six Pythons – Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – are effortlessly charming in various roles, all 40 of them. Chapman plays Brian Cohen, a Judean with a vetty British accent. Brian puts up with all kinds of frustrating events: He attends Jesus Christ’s sermon on the mount, but stands so far away that he can’t understand him. (“Blessed are the cheese makers”?) He meets a group of radical Judeans, who let him in on their plan to overthrow Pontius Pilate (Palin). They invite him to join, but being in the People’s Front of Judea is harder than it sounds: “If you wanted to join the PFJ,” they tell him, “you’d have to really hate the Romans.”
You’d be surprised how quickly the greatest story ever told is transformed into a flimsy pretext for infernal lunacy. But this is merely a setup – we don’t watch Monty Python movies for a comprehensible plot. Their comedies are driven by anarchy, shock and contempt for their characters. They’re like the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, who were willing to seduce audiences with brutality and cruelty.
There’s always been a scandal around their films, but “Life of Brian” stands above the others. It offended all denominations of Christianity, who hired protesters to picket theaters when it premiered in 1979. Maybe it was for the best – John Cleese once told Michael Palin that “We’ve brought them all together for the first time in 2,000 years!”
Comedy like this has a style that’s easy to recognize, but hard to define. There’s a quote from Potter Stewart about pornography that works for this kind of material: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
“Monty Python’s Life of Brian” may be the only film in history to include a musical number on the crucifix. Not only that, but the song is Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Hard to look on the bright side when you’re about to die a horrible death. This is just one reason why Monty Python is one of the funniest and most irreverent comedy troupes of all time.
Graham Chapman portrays Brian, who was unlucky enough to be born in the stable next to Jesus and spends the rest of his life not being able to live up to people’s expectations.
The movie is littered with inspiring bits of comedy that spoof the boring old Bible stories we all heard a million times before.
A leper actually complains that because Jesus cured him, he can no longer beg for money.
Of the three movies Monty Python made, this stands head and shoulders above the rest as their most intellectual picture. In order to enjoy a majority of the jokes, one has to understand how the Bible is constantly negating its own words throughout.
However, none of it was done mean-spiritedly and the majority of the people that often protested this film didn’t even see it. This was just Monty Python trying to tell us that we need to loosen up and laugh at our own history and beliefs.