Monty Python's Life Of Brian (Criterion Collection) Review
If anything, Monty Python's Life Of Brian is a film that could act as an indicator of one's own ignorance. Outrageously demonised in its day (1979) as a blasphemous piece of nonsense, the film stands more than twenty years after its release as arguably the funniest film of all time, and is rightly regarded as genius on both the right and left sides of the political fence.
What's all the fuss about? Essentially, Monty Python's Life Of Brian is a parody of religion, aimed mostly at the tale of Christ. Rather than use Christ as a protagonist however, Python chose instead to tell the story of the fictitious boy born in a manger next door to Jesus, who was named Brian. Using Brian's life as a focus-point for hysterically funny satire, Monty Python's Life Of Brian is a true gem from beginning to end. Anyone who has seen a film adaptation of the tale of Christ (King Of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told) or indeed has read that particular part of the Bible will know that the ending involves (look away if you haven't read it) Christ being crucified. Monty Python's Life Of Brian ends with a crucifixion, but it is one of the most uplifting and amazingly funny conclusions to a film the history of cinema has ever witnessed.
As mentioned previously, the story begins with Christ and Brian's birth in adjoining mangers. However, the story really begins when Brian is a grown man (played by Graham Chapman). Living under the tyranny of his single mother (played wonderfully by Terry Jones) and working as a part-time confectionery seller at the local coliseum, Brian is attracted to Judith (Sue Jones-Davies) and joins her revolutionary group the People's Front Of Judea. The PFJ's aim is to subvert as many Roman activities as they can (as well as the Judean People's Front - a group the PFJ despises). However, after a bizarre chain of events, Brian is mistaken for a messiah, and causes commotion amongst the Judean people. This manages to incite the Romans and leave himself completely bewildered by it all and their biggest enemy.
Without wishing to enter the debate, Monty Python's Life Of Brian is gloriously funny because it exposes and ridicules all of the contradictions in religion without becoming a direct attack. This is why the film was almost completely misunderstood in some quarters when it was released. All the film does is portray a man living at the same time as Jesus Christ. Any parallels that are drawn are down to the individual. Anyone claiming the film to 'obviously' parody the life of Christ and therefore be blasphemous is missing the point, as Monty Python's Life Of Brian has clear distinctions about who Brian is and who Jesus is. The character of Christ himself even appears in the film, and his actions are true to the bible and handled very seriously. This essentially showcases the film's parodying technique, in that rather than humourously attack Christ himself, Monty Python's Life Of Brian attacks the masses around him. When Jesus is announcing "Blessed are the meek" to the crowd hanging on his every word, the people at the back mishear him - "Blessed are the Greek! What's so special about the Greeks?" This in itself is not only funny but worrying, since many of the religious beliefs of our contemporary society is based solely on the hearsay of people two thousand years ago. This typically Python sequence suggests how ridiculous this notion is. Another example is the sequence where Brian is trying to give his adoring masses the slip, and when he is successful they automatically assume that since he has disappeared he has flown into the sky!
There are other moments in the film that are equally hilarious as the sequences mentioned and yet have little or nothing to do with religion. How about the haggling scenes, in which a market stall owner refuses to sell any items to customers unless they haggle over the price, even if they have no problem with the asking price. Or how about Pontius Pilate (played fantastically by Michael Palin with a put-on speech impediment) who disciplines his subordinate Roman guards when they laugh at the name of his friend Biggus Dickus! Michael Palin's portrait of the Ex-Leper is genius - a character who criticises Jesus for healing him and thus ruining his trade. Or how about Reg (John Cleese), leader of the PFJ who utters the immortal line of "All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"
As a film, Monty Python's Life Or Brian is much more structurally sound compared to Holy Grail, and is therefore less faithful to the spirit of their television series. The film isn't littered with Terry Gilliam animation or plot line tangents, and therefore is a more serious attempt at comedy from the Python team. All six of the principle writers still play the majority of parts, and they portray apparently forty different characters between them, which is an impressive achievement considering you are never confused when watching. And what about the ending? The dreaded crucifixion. Not only did it spurn one of the most memorable tunes ever, in the form of Eric Idle's catchy Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, it also manages to cheekily act as an antithesis to everything the death of Christ teaches us.
Financed by the late great George Harrison, the film has not only stood the test of time but managed to remain as fresh and relevant today as it did in 1979, and is a must-see for both fans of Monty Python's Flying Circus and of comedy itself.
Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen, as opposed to the bare-bones Region 1 Anchor Bay release which isn't anamorphic and the R2 Paramount version which is unmatted, this is the best visual version of the film available an Criterion have done a very good job. There are many noticeable amounts of grain and white speckles, but this doesn't distract much on the proceedings.
Presented in the original stereo soundtrack, the sound track has been remastered for the better and sound is presented clearly. There aren't many if any surround effects and only a few sound events are given spatial channelling, but the sound track is still a good effort from Criterion.
: A subtle menu compared to that of the Holy Grail menu, with a cosmic/epic feel to the proceedings, complete with angelic/sci-fi backing music.
Packaging: A minimalist design with the usual Criterion Collection trim at the top of the front cover, complete with a fold out production note booklet with chapter listings. Housed in a black amaray.
Audio Commentary With Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones
: This commentary is fascinating listening even if the three of them have been recorded separately. Out of the three chaps, Eric Idle is the most fun to listen to - he provides a hilarious and yet poignant story about the late Keith Moon (drummer of The Who) and mentions a funny "I'm Spartacus" story that the Python group indulged in whilst on a plane!
Audio Commentary With John Cleese and Michael Palin: This commentary is slightly sparser in content due to only having two participants compared to the previous commentary's three participants. Palin and Cleese are content to analyse the film and it's meaning compared to providing anecdotes like Jones, Idle and Gilliam, and this provides a nice companion to the previous commentary, even if one must mention sadness at the five men not being recorded together.
Deleted Scenes With Optional Commentary By Terry Jones and Eric Idle
: Five deleted scenes are presented that were found on a 3/4" work cassette belonging to Terry Jones. The quality of these sequences isn't the best, but they still are very watchable. The sequences contain optional commentary from Eric Idle, and aren't as funny as the scenes that remain in the film, and it is fairly conclusive as to why they were cut, even if one of the sequences contains a hilarious sequence involving Otto, leader of an oriental suicide squad!
Theatrical Trailer: An original theatrical trailer that is nice to have for sentimental value even if it isn't as funny as the Holy Grail trailer.
Original British Radio Ads: Four original British radio ads are presented here, and are hilarious considering they feature none of the Python team. Instead they feature people who know them - such as Palin's dentist or Gilliam's mother, and they each have their own special way of pleading with the audience to see the film.
Python's Documentary: A splendid forty nine minute documentary filmed in 1979 on location that features extensive and revealing interviews with the cast and crew and presents clips of each Python's work independent of the television show. The content of the documentary is superb, and arguably better than the two commentaries provided. This documentary is worth watching just to see John Cleese do a fantastic impression of Terry Gilliam!
Colour Bars: A Criterion standard test page for ensuring your TV settings are the best available.
The wittiest movie ever made with some of the greatest comedy set-pieces ever staged, Monty Python's Life Of Brian does the legendary status of Criterion proud, with fine picture and sound quality and outstanding extras (even if the Holy Grail goes that extra mile). If you have to own one Criterion that doesn't break the bank (i.e. Brazil), make sure it's this one.