20 December 2004 | j30bell
A Masterwork of British Comedy
In Life of Brian, Python created what John Cleese called simply "our masterpiece". As a piece of writing, it is the most impressive of the three feature length Python movies. The scenes remain episodic, but there is a much more coherent narrative than in the earlier Holy Grail I loved HG too, but for different reasons. The characters (well about one or two of the characters) have acquired some subtle shading, which is rare in comedy and, alas, rare in British comedy in particular. The plight of Chapman's Brian is one that I really cared about (although his death is also extremely funny, upbeat and one of the truly iconic moments in British cinema).
The story must be fairly well known. Brian is born at the same time as Jesus with whom he leads a kind of parallel life, thus allowing the team to lampoon and satirise everything from religious zealotry and mob hysteria to 1950s biblical/sword & sandals epic cinema. It does this by marrying historic situations with more modern attitudes; thus we have revolutionary Stan who wants to be Loretta and have the right to have babies, the old man who can't understand why he's being stoned for saying simply "that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah!" the gruff centurion correcting Brian's Latin grammar while he's trying to daub anti-Roman slogans on a wall and the gentle centurion asking each of a line of the condemned "crucifixion? Good" while ticking them off on his clipboard. Interspersed with this is slapstick, pantomime women (I'm not sure there are any real women in Python, which is probably its greatest failing) and a small amount of the trademark Python surrealism (the spaceship, the "prophet" talking about the sons misplacing the things owned by their fathers who had placed them down only just a moment ago
etc). In short, something for everyone except, perhaps, committed Christians.
A lot of attention has been paid to whether LoB is blasphemous. The Pythons claim not and I'm not sufficiently religious to care very much. On the surface, I disagree. There are also occasional sideswipes at ancient Jewish custom although, to be fair, only stoning which, if you'll pardon the pun, might be considered a fair target. Jesus is not criticised, but the film's central message seems to be; be in the right place at the right time and even a man called Brian can become God. Almost the last line is from Eric Idle saying; "you come from nothing and go back to nothing" which doesn't suggest that the man on the mount at the beginning is a divinity, no matter whether he's talking sense or not.
Most importantly though, LoB is refreshingly satirical. There always was an element of this in Python (mediaeval Christian philosophy lampooned in the Holy Grail for example "this new learning amazes me Sir Bedevere, explain again how sheeps' bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes
so, if she weighs the same as a duck, she must be made of wood, and therefore - a witch". I guess LoB attracted attention because the satire had never been so bold or obvious before. This is also what makes LoB such an incredibly funny film to watch; but put it this way despite what Rowan Atkinson may have once said I'd be very surprised if the Python's weren't expecting the Spanish Inquisition.
That shouldn't put you off, though. Unless your faith is too weak to survive Python's gentle humanism, watch this movie you'll probably love it.