Director: Terry Jones
Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Watch Life of Brian online in the UK: Netflix UK
“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” The fact that you’re already smiling after reading that sentence is testament to just how good Life of Brian is. While the title of funniest Python movie goes to Holy Grail, this religious comedy is the sketch troupe’s best, a satire that’s perfectly structured, exquisitely executed and is, quite simply, very, very funny.
The movie tells the epic story of a man whose coming was foretold by the prophets – and the foolish crowds of people who got him confused with another bloke. That bloke was Brian, a young Jewish man who was born on the same day as Jesus Christ, and whose birth was rudely interrupted by three Wise Men, bringing sacred, precious gifts – all gleefully welcomed by his mother (Terry Jones), until they realise their mistake and rudely take them back and rush out to find the real son of God.
That mistaken identity only gets worse throughout Brian’s life, as he’s swept up into a revolution against the Roman Empire. It’s only when hiding from the authorities during a raid, though, that he cements his pseudo-Messianic status, picking up a following by pretending to preach wise words, as a way of blending in with all the other fake religious teachers in the local market.
It’s those little touches that make Life of Brian such a scathing piece of work, one that’s not targeted at the figure of Christ himself (who does appear in the film), but at the way that organised religion operates – it’s heresy, rather than sacrilege, and all the more effective because of it. “You are all individuals,” insists Brian, only for his horde to chant it back at him in perfect union. When Jesus does give his Sermon on the Mount, we’re stuck at the back, hearing the mistranslated, half-heard scraps. “Blessed are the cheesemakers?” cries one, sparking an argument between two opposing interpretations.
The script is razor sharp, something that’s particularly impressive given the inherently scatological nature of the Python’s work. The movie is, as you’d expect from them or any production from an SNL star today, a series of vignettes strung together, but Life of Brian manages the nigh-impossible task of ensuring every one is a hit. The group clearly know their strengths, with each person precisely picked for their array of parts – who else but the charismatic Graham Chapman could play the put-upon Brian, a well-meaning man who doesn’t want to be a religious icon and has to politely suffer it to his grave?
Michael Palin is on side-splitting form as Pontius Pilate, who regales us of his friend, Biggus Dickus, while John Cleese is imperiously deadpan as Roman Centurion, who spots Brian writing anti-Roman graffiti on the city walls… and promptly corrects his grammar. Terry Gillian can rarely be seen having more than as a prophet, while Eric Idle is laugh-out-loud funny as a market seller trying to teach someone how to haggle. Terry Jones, meanwhile, walks away with the best line of the entire film as Brian’s mother.
Gilliam finds just the right spot to insert a burst of alien animation, while director Jones balances it out by grounding the whole thing in a surprisingly believable depiction of the period. The attention to detail is remarkable, given added weight by the film’s focus on the day-to-day life of those living under Roman rule – women, who are stifled by the law, must wear fake beards to attend stonings, while the rebellious movements calling for independence have split into factions who spend more time arguing with each other than the Romans (a dig at contemporary politics that still echoes true today).
Cleese quietly steals scenes throughout as Reg, a cowardly leader who calls for solidarity and sacrifice, but never takes part in anything himself. And it’s in him that Life of Brian highlights its message about hypocrisy within religion and the church. It’s an important, pertinent point, but one that’s delivered with a light touch and a rate of jokes per minute that any comedy would die for. But if they did, well, at least they’d probably get away with an easy crucifixion – a joke that sounds impossible to pull off, but makes for one of the most unexpectedly upbeat movie endings ever put on screen. This isn’t just Monty Python’s best film: it’s one of the best comedies of all time.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.