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Life of Brian

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Life of Brian

Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese
Director: Terry Jones
Rated: R
RunTime: 94 Minutes
Release Date: August 1979
Genres: Comedy, Cult

*Also starring: Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

Monty Python, legendary British comedian troupe, usually divides people into two very distinct camps. Some consider them comedic geniuses and literally worship all their incarnations - all episodes of BBC show, songs, books and movies. Other simply can't digest their rather strange, dark and twisted sense of humour and, accordingly, can't fathom what was so special about them. The author of this review belongs somewhere in the middle. I first encountered Monty Python in late 1980s, when former Yugoslav television aired BBC show. Initially, I was somewhat disappointed - some gags were truly funny, some were hard to understand. Later, when I watched the entire show for the second time, I learn to appreciate their humour a little more, but I still don't see them as undisputed kings of comedy. That notion is strengthened with my experiences with Monty Python films that turned to be disappointments. The only exception is LIFE OF BRIAN, directed in 1979 by Terry Jones. Before watching I had entire film spoiled thanks to my friend who happened to be most enthusiastic Monty Python fan. The resulting lack of surprises didn't prevent huge outbursts of laughter when I watched LIFE OF BRIAN for the first time.

Interestingly enough, LIFE OF BRIAN is somewhat obscure chapter in recent film histories. It could be explained with the fact that it tackles subject which is rather sensitive for too many people around the world - religion, or to be precise, fundaments of Christian religion. The movie protagonist is Brian of Nazareth (played by Graham Chapman), ordinary bloke from Judea who just happened to be born few blocks away from Jesus. He doesn't like the fact that he is bastard son of Roman centurion, and his hatred of Romans leads him to join People's Front of Judaeo, group of rather idle revolutionaries. Their attempts to overthrow Roman yoke are mostly unsuccessful and in the process, Brian not only brings the attention of the authorities, but also of the masses that see long awaited Messiah in him.

For me, LIFE OF BRIAN is the best Monty Python film because, unlike in all the rest, Monty Python jokes are held together with more or less coherent plot. But that doesn't mean that the film is conventional in any other sense. For example, all members of Monty Python team are playing different characters, yet in doing so they give each of them something unique, so even those viewers who are unfamiliar with Monty Python's unconventionality won't notice it. It is hard to single out the best one among that multitude of characters and incredible performances, but Graham Chapman as Brian is probably the best answer. His performance is especially touching when we take into account that the actor died few years after the finishing of the film. Other good episodes also stand - like Terry Jones as Brian's mother Mandy, John Clues as revolutionary leader Redge, Michael Pallin as Pilate, Michael Pallin as Ex-Leper and Eric Idle as Stan who wants to be called Loretta. Even Terry Gilliam, the least recognisable part of the team, has impressive role of Jailer, and the other actors are fine too, including Sue Jones-Davies as Judith, the only real girl among revolutionaries.

Jokes in this film aren't just verbal, but visual too. The film is directed by Terry Jones, whose latter record wasn't that impressive (ERIK THE VIKING). But, in the barren and simple settings of Tunisia provide quite adequate setting for the whole story, and Jones is doing fine job. Gilliam's animation is used only in opening titles, so it is not too distracting. Members of Monty Python team also used greater creative freedom of feature film, and provided this film with enough quantities of four-letter words, blood and gore. Graham Chapman entered movie history as the main participant in the most spectacular film scene that involves full frontal male nudity.

Some Christians, naturally, didn't like this film. It was considered blasphemous, theatres showing it became favourite target of picketing Christians, and Norway banned it. Those who see this film as an attack on Christianity and Judaism may have some point, although the film authors defended their work as satire not on religion itself, but the way religion is presented to the masses. Some jokes in this film are hard to understand without familiarity with biblical movies; members of Monty Python team probably noticed that people in such movies hardly talk in behave in the way normal people would. Jesus (who appears in a cameo role played by Kenneth Colley) is mostly left out of picture, and film concentrates on his contemporaries, but some parallels with biblical events are impossible to ignore (miracles, crucifixion etc.). Movie could be viewed as an attack not on religion itself, but on its most absurd and dangerous forms, like blind faith and fanaticism that accompanies it. The criticism of fundamentalism and traditionalism on the right is nicely contrasted with the way this film takes stabs at radicalism on the left side of political spectrum. People's Front of Judaea and their rivals in the Judaean political underground could be viewed as author's commentary on various extreme left-wing groups drowned in self-destructive factionalism and even more irrationalism acts of terrorism that marked 1970s. Some humour in this film is less ambitious, like farcical and surreal scene of UFO abduction, which could be seen as authors' comment on STAR WARS crazyness. But even in such jokes, humour is great, although some, like the one involving wall graffiti, require benefits of the classical education. Some jokes, on the other hand, aren't very funny or that effective.

But, despite those flaws, LIFE OF BRIAN remains one of the best underapreciated films made in last hundred years. Time would silence its critics, and new generations would watch it, laugh and think about its messages. Probably the best homage to LIFE OF BRIAN happened in 1982, during Falkland War. Same as the film's protagonist, surviving crew of HMS Sheffield, sinking British warship, found comfort and encouragement in the ending song and its immortal lyrics "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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