There’s nothing like a Catholic upbringing to make things like Monty Python’s LIFE OF BRIAN just that much funnier. Actually, as I giggled my way through the film for the first time, I went so far as to wonder why this film wasn’t aired on television every Easter (like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS)…but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Through the years, damned near every great Monty Python bit has been spoiled for me. Before I ever got to hear the likes of John Cleese and Michael Palin argue about a dead parrot, I’d been witness to every line of the sketch. Before I ever laid eyes on the knights who say “ni!”, I was quoted damned near every syllable of the screenplay to HOLY GRAIL. Strangely though, nobody ever tipped me off to the humour of THE LIFE OF BRIAN. On the one hand, I wonder why that is (Is it considered ‘less quotable’ or something Python fans?), but on the other hand that worked to my advantage since I was able to soak it up without prejudice.
For the uninitiated, MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN is about Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), who was born on the same night as Jesus Christ…just a few stables away as a matter of fact. he grows up disliking the Roman occupation of the holy land, and through one mishap after another gets mistaken for a saviour. As he tries to flee his growing flock of worshippers, his every action and possession begins to take on religious meaning to the throng giving chase. Unfortunately for Brian, his newfound fame gets him arrested by The Romans, and – you guessed it – sentenced to crucifixion.
Some of what makes BRIAN so funny is the simple things, such as the logistics of listening to a sermon on the mount (“What’d he say?…Blessed are the cheesemakers?”). Likewise, the film gave me fits of giggles by watching Pilate declare that Wodewick sounded like a Weal Webel. The key to it all is the way Python blends the two, the simple and the silly. On a base level, BRIAN is really just a long series of sketches that the players come and go through. It’s as if they were writing an episode of The Flying Circus and thought “Let’s do them all with a biblical theme tonight”. However, it’s that theme that helps those odd sketches coalesce into something wonderful…something greater as a whole than the individual smirks it inspires.
Making it all the more joyous is the fact that the whole caper builds up to one of the best songs in cinema history. Not to get all “They don’t make ’em like this anymore”, but name me a comedy from the last decade that culminates with an original song with half as much wit as this. Hell, name me a comedy from the last decade that culminates in an original song! “Bright Side” puts a bold signature on everything the film set out to do. It isn’t out to blaspheme; it wants to skewer scripture with wit. To blaspheme would be to have a Christ-like figure start acting like a Howard Stern knock-off. This film is smarter than that. To paraphrase this catchy tune, it wants to forget about the sin and give the audience a grin.
If I was a smarter writer, I’d have done some research before writing this post – specifically, I’d have asked a family friend who is a Catholic priest what he thought of the film. Part of me thinks he’d be a fan (He liked DOGMA back when it was in theatres, so there’s a precedent). Once every month or two, he’d actually use Hollywood films as a springboard for his sermons – the one inspired by HELLBOY was truly entertaining. While much of LIFE OF BRIAN is just trying to make fun, some of it comes with undercurrents I believe my old spiritual guide would gravitate towards. I think of the stoning scene for instance, and how it underlines the danger of casting the first stone.
As for me, I’m intrigued way the film gets the flock to argue amongst themselves over what precisely should be worshipped (there’s a disagreement between sandals and gourds). I’ve always found it strange that religions that are so similar can disagree so vehemently. Most of the major religions in the world teach the same basic principles: lead a good life, do good unto others, there will be something else waiting for you after this life ends. After that it turns into different rules surrounding customs, conservatism, and the occasional deity. I might be making things seem a bit more facile than they are, but doesn’t it seem like so many of the religious conflicts that have arisen over the years feel as though sandal vs. gourd resulted in bloodshed?
Every bit of humour in this movie holds up splendidly, and I dare suggest that the only thing that would have made me laugh at it harder would be if I were to watch it with a crowd. Films like this make me wish I ran an art house cinema, since I’d love to be cheeky and program it on Good Friday (I could even offer JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR as the second half of a double feature). If I did, I’d likely invite a bit of grumpiness from conservative worshippers, perhaps giving me a dose of the massive amount of flak the film has received over the years.
I don’t understand that though. This isn’t a film that features something in bad taste like Jesus peeing on dying kittens. This is a film that wants us to laugh. More than anything, I need to believe that God has a sense of humour…that God would want us to share in the immense uniting joy that comedy can bring. If not, then why would he make it so much fun to laugh – even at our own expense?
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for March (so far)…
Dave Voigt wrote about COOL HAND LUKE
Allison wrote about PRIMER
Jandy has joined the fray and wrote about THE VIRGIN SPRING
Bob “I am a rare and precious snowflake” Turnbull wrote about a pair again; THE TIN DRUM and STAND BY ME
Courtney Small wrote about VANISHING POINT
Jake Cole wrote about L’ARGENT
Dan Heaton wrote about IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
Steve Honeywell wrote about MAGNOLIA
New to the project, Andreas has jumped on board this month and also written about THE TIN DRUM
Max wrote about BLAZING SADDLES