Monty Python's Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition Review
"He's not the messiah...he's a very naughty boy!" Therein lies the key to Monty Python's Life Of Brian, not that it's a film about Christ at all. Like Ben-Hur, Christ is a figure who exists only in cameo and in the background of the story. Unlike Ben-Hur, and unlike any other biblical epic you might care to mention, Life Of Brian is a scurrilous movie that is amongst the smartest, quickest comedies made for the screen. Like buckshot, it goes every which way, spoofing the millennial fever for a messiah, Latin classes, gender politics, lisps, madness, the bloodlust for a good stoning and is, if not blasphemous, entirely and wonderfully heretical. Most brilliantly of all, it was written by, directed by and starred Monty Python, perhaps one of the few comedy teams who could tell the difference.
Two thousand years ago, or thereabouts, Brian is born in a stable in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mandy, a rather awful woman who takes advantage of the busy obstetrics in Jewish stables to swipe the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from the confused Magi. Her only boy grows to be a rather useless soul who so happens to be about when miracles are being worked but who stands so far away so as not to matter. His job selling snacks at the coliseum take him into the very heart of Roman life...good thing too for one so keen on striking back at an empire that has given so little to the Jewish people. Well, except for sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, public health and so on. His first mission to graffiti ROMANS GO HOME is successful - written out 100 times in letters twenty feet tall! - and is hailed as a hero of the revolution. But the Romans are taking a keen interest in Brian, as are an increasing number of Jews, who are claiming him to be the messiah. All that Brian wants to do is fall in love...but the crowd outside his window would rather he didn't.
There cannot be many people who have not seen Life Of Brian. Fundamentalist Christians perhaps, whose less-than-considered opinion of the film will be waived on account of their lack of good humour. Fundamentalist Athiests too, perhaps for its acceptance of there being a Christ who made his way around Israel around the time of Brian who said a lot of very reasonable things and urged people not to kill other people, to turn the other cheek and, generally, to live decent lives. The Pope, I would assume, will not have seen it, more on grounds of being rather busy with the part of his job that demands infallibility rather than any objection to the film. However, otherwise, there's really no excuse.
Monty Python And The Holy Grail is my personal favourite but Life Of Brian is clearly the better film. In fact, it is quite simply one of the greatest screen comedies ever produced. It is a comedy that proves that it's possible to mix the sight of men-dressed-as-women-dressed-as-men with a lesson in Latin. "Vocative plural of "Romanus" is?" It can place a character called Biggus Dickus alongside Pontius Pilate and have the pair of them competing as to what is funnier. Pilate, unable to pronounce his Rs has to announce the release of Roderick and Roger while Dickus, equally unable to say his Ss, demands the freedom of Samson the Sadducee Strangler, Silus the Syrian Assassin, several seditious scribes from Caesarea and sixty-seven seers. Or Thamthon the Thadduthee Thtrangler, Thiluth the Thyrian Aththaththin, theveral theditiouth thcribeth from Caetharea and thixty-theven theerth! Crack Judean suicide squads jostle for space with aliens, there is a memorable Spartacus gag - "I'm Brian!" " Look, I'm Brian!" "I'm Brian and so's my wife!" - and an ex-leper complaining about Jesus Christ, that bloody do-gooder. "I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I'm a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood's gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! "You're cured, mate."" And, finally, an oh-so-happy song with which to end the movie and send you off home on a high note.
As brilliant as Life Of Brian is, it's not without fault. The middle section is, well, rather dull. Very much of its time, this part of the film spoofs the politics of the UK of the late-seventies, a time of strikes, the unions and three-day weeks. The various terrorist groups present in Jerusalem come up against one another while the People's Front of Judea hold endless meetings. It feels as long watching it here as the Nine O'Clock News on the BBC must have done then and is amongst the only part of the film that feels rooted in time. The film is saved by the arrival of Michael Palin's Boring Prophet - "There shall be a great confusion as to where things really are...a friend shall lose his friend's hammer, and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock" - and Life Of Brian is suddenly back on track. From that point it, it is a riot of heresy, of nude hermits, of literal readings of parables, of Brian's disciples arguing over whether to follow the way of the gourd or of the lost shoe, of a very caring centurion and of the crucifixion of a great many people.
Like Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Zucker Abrahams Zucker's Airplane!, the reason why Life Of Brian works so very well is that it is a thorough, faithful and, aliens aside, spot-on biblical epic, albeit one in which everyone speaks in normal voices and the Virgin Mandy tells Jesus Christ to, "Speak up!" Like Young Frankenstein using the same sets as James Whale's Frankenstein for the perfect touch of authenticity, so Life Of Brian could well have trampled over the same ground as Ben-Hur, The Robe or King Of Kings. There's a certain amount of heresy even in that. That it does all of that and proves that George Harrison, as well as being the man who wrote Something, Taxman and When We Was Fab, ought to be hailed as a man who once saved British comedy, is something to be celebrated, if not proving Life Of Brian is very far from being irreligious. After all, how blasphemous can a film be if it was financed of the millions earned by My Sweet Lord?
Life Of Brian has had a troubled time on DVD. The original R2 release was a pan-and-scanned version of the film. Criterion then released a version on R1, which was followed by an anamorphic release on R2 with much the same extras, some of which appear once again on this set. This boasts a completely restored version of the and it does look cleaner, though not by much, than any version of Life Of Brian that I've seen before. It's not quite swimming in as much grain as earlier releases but it's still there, left over from the original cut of the film, most notably on the special effects shots that save Brian from a fall off a tower and takes him into space. This comes and goes throughout the running time of the movie with one grainy scene being followed by another that is almost clean. To be honest, this isn't something that bothers me - I expect grain to be present on older films, even to being a little disappointed if there isn't any - as, more importantly, the print is generally clean and the encoding of the film onto DVD is pretty good.
There is the occasional bit of dirt on the print or stray line and the transfer overcompensates for grain by being a little too soft but, generally speaking, it isn't bad and is probably the best this has looked for a long time. The DD5.1 audio track isn't anything that couldn't have been done with a DD2.0 stereo track as, though it sounds fine with the dialogue and action being clear and distinguishable from one another, there's nothing that would have demanded the use of surround channels. Nothing, for example, that a Pro-Logic decoding couldn't have worked with just as well. Finally, there are a range of subtitles across the main feature and on the extras.
Commentaries: There are two tracks here, both of them subtitled in English and Italian and offering contributions from all of the surviving members of Monty Python but recorded separately. One track includes Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle while the other offers us John Cleese and Michael Palin. Each one isn't very much different from what one expects of them. Jones and Gilliam, as the directors in the group, tend towards the making of the film, Palin is decent to a fault while Cleese is the first to say what he disliked about the film, the controversy that followed its release and the behind-the-scenes disagreements between Terry Jones and himself.
By limiting each contributor to a half or a third of the total running time of the film, there are very few gaps in the commentaries. If Michael Palin dries up, Cleese takes over but the problem with this approach is that there can be a gap between the start of a scene and a contributor offering their thoughts on it. One such example is Michael Palin, as the actor on the screen, talking about playing Pilate as we first see him. A few minutes later, Cleese begins talking about the scene as though he was also watching it from the beginning, leaving a noticeable gap between what is on the screen and what is being said on the commentaries.
The Story Of Brian (59m50s): Surprisingly, this sees all of the living Pythons co-operating with its producers, although not together. Idle, Jones, Gilliam, Cleese and Palin are interviewed separately, beginning with Idle's chance comment of making Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory whilst promoting Holy Grail in Amsterdam. They go on to describe the worries about blasphemy - Gay News had just been prosecuted for The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name by James Kirkup - the casting conflicts with Cleese wanting to play Brian and Bernard Delfont pulling EMI out of the contract to make the film.
Thanks to, as Michael Palin puts it, Saint George of Harrison, who appears in an archive interview, the film was back on and this documentary follows the behind-the-scenes arguments, the Spike Milligan cameo and how Eric Idle came up with ending the movie with a cheery song. After the shoot, it's on to the subject of blasphemy and the defence of it by John Mortimer (again, interviewed here). Later, there are the chat show appearances, including the famous onscreen discussion between Pythons Cleese and Palin and the Bishop of Southwark and born-again Christian Malcolm Muggeridge. Palin, memorably, gets angry but, in his interview, deals with it well, even to including Not The Nine O'Clock News' spoof of it. This is a marvellous, fascinating documentary that hears from those within Python, those without but who supported the film and those who wished to see it banned, even to including the voice of the Festival Of Light.
Deleted Scenes (12m58s): Beginning with the wrong shepherds talking about sheep while another lot are being called to Bethlehem behind them, this features five scenes cut from the film before its release into cinemas. The big cut is that of Otto, leader of the Judean People's Front Crack Suicide Squad, in a scene that was to draw a parallel between Nazism and Zionism, which came complete with the Star of David redesigned with Swastika-styled trailing edges. Eric Idle contributes a commentary to all but one of these scenes.
Radio Spots: These are radio advertisements for Life Of Brian starring Mrs Cleese (51s), Mrs Idle (37s) and grandson, Mrs Gilliam (37s) and Michael Palin's Dentist (51s). Almost as funny as the film itself.
Script Read Through (110m49s): From July 1977 and over a year before the film went into production, this audio-only recording of the Pythons reading through an early script of Life Of Brian is accompanied by scanning the pages of the script and the original storyboards. There aren't many moments when the rehearsal cuts away from a straight reading but it does include many scenes that were cut before filming began.
Finally, there is a Photo Gallery.