Life of Brian (1979)

Many people would be swift to label Life of Brian as anti-religious. If anything, the film is anti-stupid, a satirizing of all the foolhardy and irrational tendencies of religious people. For a religious person, the film may be hard to watch, they might get the feeling that they themselves are the brunt end of all the fun but they should ask themselves this: is the film mocking religion as a system or does it bring up some fair criticisms?

In the best scenes of Life of Brian, the film finds ways to show how religious people take pure religion and twist it into something else. The opening moments of the film are the Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus. A group in the back keeps mishearing the words of Christ and instead of trying to clarify, they twist whatever they hear into a completely false notion of religion, applying metaphorical meanings and personal expressions into the preaching of Christ.

This being a Monty Python film, the film is a series of loosely related skits. The main character that appears in most of these skits is Brian (Graham Chapman), who lives a life parallel to the life of Christ. He finds himself caught among a group of Jewish freedom fighters only to inadvertently start an entire religious movement, gaining status as the messiah. To which his mother replies: “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”

After giving a speech of love and acceptance amid a crowd of hecklers, he finds that throngs of people begin following him, all fervently devoted to him. He gains fame by using the words of Christ, but changes their inherent meaning. Soon, two sects quickly form, reading too much into everything. When he drops a flip-flop, everyone sees it as some kind of meaningful sign, well, expect for those who decided to worship Brian’s gourd.

Where the comedy fails is when it becomes a bit more Pythonesque, indulging unrelated gags that center around absurd dialogue exchanges or using physical humor and performances to try to elicit jokes. Some work, but just as many don’t. They lack the sharp with and funny insight of the satirical jokes. One of the worst scenes of the film is the sequence when Pontius Pilate, who has a heavy speech impediment, is mocked by the crowd. What starts out as amusing becomes progressively more annoying as the joke is taken far beyond the point of excess.

However, the best scene of the film is totally derivative of a lot of the film. Brian is told by the freedom fighters to vandalize the coliseum with anti-Rome propaganda. As he attempts to write in Latin a message of hate toward the Romans, a Centurion finds him and instead of arresting him, threatens him to death to correct his Latin mistakes. It’s Python humor at it’s finest: Absurd, intellectual and nerdy.

Life of Brian is an uneven film. At it’s finest moments the jokes are both hilarious and intellectual, a deconstruction religious pitfalls. However, for every such scene, there’s a sight gag that overstays its visit, fails to prove funny or simply isn’t as funny as it should be. The film’s too rambling, too directionless. Although, a pretentious philosophical view would be to read some sort of absurdist view into the film, there are just too many moments that don’t work.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing