As you may recall, I get nervous sometimes when taking the kids to a movie that was really big in my life. You just never know how well something from your past is going to hold up, though, to be honest, so far the surprises have been mostly pleasant. And not once has one of the kids looked at me like I was crazy. (Well, I mean, not for any of these movies.) But Life of Brian loomed huge in my early life, and it’s not something that everyone gets. First, it’s Monty Python. Second, there’s a lot of Latin/Roman/religious humor in it, and that is not accessible to everyone.
But, even if John Cleese has changed his mind over the years and argues now that this movie is blasphemous/sacrilegious/whatever—he didn’t back in the day, and you can find some interesting stuff on YouTube about it—I maintain that this is, fundamentally, a movie about human nature. Actually, in one of these debates (moviemakers used to debate religious leaders on late-night talk-shows in England in the ’70s, apparently) the bishop or abbot takes a cheap shot at the movie for lapsing lazily into nudity and swearing and a more on-the-nose shot about the movie borrowing its cachet from Jesus.
The former is accurate but not true. The brief nudity is hilarious and to the point: In Brian’s case, it summarizes perfectly his naivete. In the case of Judith, it summarizes her zealotry. The swearing, if we take broadly all the various Britishisms as swearing, is still on the mark today, which puts a lie to the notion that it was lazy or shock-value. (And if you don’t believe that, look at just about any of those Airplane! ripoffs that flooded the market in the ’90s/’00s.)
The latter is accurate, but avoided as much as possible. Originally, the film was to have a lot more Jesus in it, but they noticed that whenever He came on screen, people stopped laughing. (There’s a lot of different ways to take that, I suppose.) So, after the film opening, where baby Brian is mistaken for baby Jesus (foreshadowing!), you have the first post-credit sequence (the Sermon on the Mount) and that’s it. And the first scene barely shows the manger while the second quickly focuses on the people in the back who couldn’t hear what Jesus said very well and who end up in a brawl.
I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Ah! what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
And we quickly leave Our Lord and head for greener comedic pastures, like a man being stoned for saying “Jehovah” by a bunch of women who are disguised as men because women aren’t allowed to go to the stonings. The meta-twist here being that since this is Monty Python, and it’s usually them dressed up as women, you have a bunch of guys pretending to be women who are pretending to be men.
Why aren’t women allowed to go to stonings, Mum?
Because it’s written, that’s why.
This is the only Monty Python movie with a truly coherent plot: Brian, in an attempt to avoid capture by the Romans, delivers a Sermon-on-the-Mount-like speech without quite finishing it. This leads people to believe that he knows something that he’s not telling them. (He cannot convince them otherwise.) As they follow him seeking answers, a crowd develops, and people become increasingly convinced that he is The Messiah. He immediately gains a prophet who places tremendous significance on a gourd he has discarded, and this leads to schism:
The shoe is the sign. Let us follow His example. Let us, like Him, hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot, for this is His sign, that all who follow Him shall do likewise.
No, no, no. The shoe is a sign that we must gather shoes together in abundance.
Cast off the shoes! Follow the Gourd!
No, no! It is a sign that, like Him, we must think not of the things of the body, but of the face and head!
The last is a favorite quote around Casa ‘Strom. So close. But of course missing the point, as homo sapiens must inevitably do. When Brian tries to assert his Jewishness by joining a radical Jersualem terrorist group devoted to driving out the bloody Romans, this leads to another one of the great quotable moments:
And what have [The Romans] ever given us in return?!
Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.
And the sanitation.
Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?
This, of course, goes on and on and on, leading to a running footnote to be attached whenever the People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front?) strikes a blow against Romans.
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?
Oh. Peace? Shut up!
I needn’t have worried. The kids may not favor it over Monty Python and the Holy Grail—most people don’t—but they did love it, and found themselves quoting it weeks and months later. They also allowed that it had a real plot, and genuine characters you end up caring about (albeit in an often weird way). There’s a rascal who constantly jokes around with the crucifixion process, and who ends up demanding to be put back up when he (in jest) gets Brian’s clemency order. (This scene recalls one in Spartacus, rather amusingly.) Mostly, you feel for Brian, whom everyone seems to be willing sacrifice on the Altar of Misunderstanding.
It is, undeniably, one of the greatest movie endings in history, and I’m not surprised to hear one of the kids whistling Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
It also has one of my favorite exchanges in movie history—well, several, really, but one in particular which would now be classified as a hate crime. And I will close this review on an excerpt:
Francis: Why are you always on about women, Stan?
Stan: [pause] I want to be one.
Stan: I want to be a woman. From now on I want you all to call me Loretta.
Stan: It’s my right as a man.
Judith: Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
Stan: I want to have babies.
Reg: You want to have babies?!
Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
Reg: But you can’t have babies.
Stan: Don’t you oppress me.
Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan—you haven’t got a womb. Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?
[Stan starts crying]
Judith: Here! I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister, sorry.
Reg: [pissed] What’s the point?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.
His struggle against reality, indeed.