THE LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) – Review by Dennis Altman [Cinema Papers]

Blasphemy is by no means dead in Britain, as the recent condemnation of Gay News, for publishing a poem portraying Christ as homosexual, reveals. But The Life of Brian has nothing about it as shocking to the faithful as this, and is saved indeed from blasphemy by its sheer vulgarity.

by Dennis Altman

There is a firm tradition of British humor, from World War 2 BBC comedies through The Goon Show to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which depends upon the juxta­position of the unexpected with the ordinary, and sends up the absurdities of everyday life by carrying it to its logical conclusion. Thus Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. The Life of Brian, by applying this principle to the life of Christ, has predictably been at­tacked for bad taste, vulgarity and even blasphemy.
Blasphemy is by no means dead in Britain, as the recent condemnation of Gay News, for publishing a poem portraying Christ as homosexual, reveals. But The Life of Brian has nothing about it as shocking to the faithful as this, and is saved indeed from blasphemy by its sheer vulgarity. It is so clearly the Monty Python gang having a bit of a lark in a desert set, that an attempt to prosecute for blasphemy would merely seem ridiculous, although we have yet to see the reaction of Australia’s religious purists.
Shorn of its religious overtones, the life of Christ is one of the original Cinderella stories, except that in this case Christ goes from lowly birth in a manger to martyrdom on the Cross, rather than finding his prince. The Life of Brian tells the story of a mythical counterpart of Christ’s, born in a less lavish manger down the road, and ends in a mass crucifixion scene on the Jerusalem hills with the crucifees singing Look on the Bright Side. Brian is played with doltish charm by Graham Chapman, while George Harrison makes an entry in a part so big that only the titles reveal his presence.
While the film is inevitably tagged as highly irreverent, its satire is directed more at biblical films than the original story, and indeed it is left-wing shibboleths, rather than religious ones, that come under most fire. As an attack on the Christian myth, it is remarkably lightweight, though the final crucifixion scene will probably distress those who believe the original story.
But The Life of Brian is neither savage nor clever enough to be an anti-religious film; or indeed anything other than a piece of expen­sive slapstick. Rather, it is as if the writers of the Carry On films have teamed with the design staff of Dino de Laurentiis, and, as in the Carry On shows, the film depends on its humor for the transposition of very British characters and dialogue into an alien setting. Thus Michael Palin plays a lisping Pilate who is clearly influenced by Norman Wisdom, and John Cleese plays a bad-tempered rebel leader, Reg, who belongs much more to Lancashire than to Palestine.
Much of the humor is directed against political rather than religious targets. Brian being an ardent Jewish nationalist who is caught painting “Romans go home” (in bad latin) on the walls of the palace. The rebels of the People’s Front of Judea (their chief enemy is the Judean People’s Front) provide the basis for the plot, such as it is, while Pilate’s lisp is the central gag for at least 15 minutes. (At times one wonders if the enormous stress on physical disability in British humor is not yet another product of its public schools.)
The Monty Python team — the film hav­ing been written essentially by its actors, though not its actresses — has an acute ear for the more pretentious rhetoric of would- be revolutionaries, but in directing their barbs at them one feels they are ducking the much less acceptable target of Christianity itself.
The Life of Brian is far less funny than a Monty Python television show, for the reason that the plot line forces a linear and even logical approach on performers whose genius always lay in the lack of such a next-step approach. The one time the film really breaks away from this — in a short science fiction sequence — is so out of character with the rest of the film that it seems totally gratuitous.
Of course, there arc some very funny moments, and some wickedly acute lines. Not many of them have much to do with the life of Christ, though the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion come in for some ribb­ing But there is no Last Supper, no betrayal by Judas, and the Mary Magdalene charac­ter is badly conceived and allows for some anti-feminist humor.
If there is a message in this film it comes when Brian is besieged in his house by a huge crowd of followers. “You are all in­dividuals,” he tells them, “you’ve got to think for yourselves.” “Yes master,” they answer in unison, “we’re all individuals. We’ve got to think for ourselves.” It might have been more appropriate had the crowd been dressed in Hare Krishna orange, rather than what appear to be discontinued sheets.
At a time when the Pope is reaffirming traditional teachings against contraception, not to mention ail the rest of the Church’s sexophobic doctrines, it would have been nice to sec a really offensive film about Christianity.
The Life of Brian is not such a film. It may have the illusion of being daring, but in practice it remains sophomoric.

Cinema Papers, Issue 24, December-January 1979-80; pp. 659-660


1 thought on “THE LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) – Review by Dennis Altman [Cinema Papers]”

  1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus knows how to do everything hilariously. Focusing on Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), who gets mistaken for the messiah in Judea in 33 AD, the movie pokes fun at everything: Romans, Jews, imperialism, even extraterrestrials. With sardonic lines almost every minute, they play religious fundamentalism for what it is silly.

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