And he started to shave
And have one off the wrist
And want to see girls
And go out and get pissed,
A man called ‘Brian…’
– “Brian Song,” opening theme
Life of Brian asks the question, “What would happen if those sweeping old Biblical epics were about a regular guy who gets attention heaped onto him?” That question is answered in Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) who insists that he is not the Messiah, or any messiah for that matter.
But he is, in a way. Brian represents the everyman, a guy who just wants to do his job, ignore the surrounding political maelstrom and occasionally get laid. Most importantly, Brian wants to be left alone. There’s nothing special or extraordinary about him. Even his name is mundane.
Alas, Brian is situated in the worst time and place to stay ordinary, being a man in 33 AD Judea who is also the unwitting hero in a sprawling satirical hurricane. Brian is not Moses, Jesus Christ, or Judah Ben-Hur, but rest assured every trope, convention, revolution and musical score will find him anyway.
When I was growing up, my fellow nerds quoted Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) for the most part, or the more famous bits from Flying Circus if it was a different feeling sort of day. Knights of Ni! and ex-parrots abounded. The Pythons had an amazing knack for getting the less book-learned to laugh while also appealing to the pHD carriers among us. Whereas Holy Grail dips deep into Arthurian legends and literary codes, Life of Brian hits closer to home—as in, three blocks up and two over, where the local denomination rings its bells.
Our Brian is fated to attract chaos from day one. On a starry first Noel in Bethlehem, baby Brian and his long suffering mother Mandy (Terry Jones) are visited by Three Wise Men, who pay homage to the infant with gold, frankincense and myrrh…until they realize they’re supposed to be next door, at which point they snatch the presents back and shove mum to the floor.
Then Brian is a grown man is Rome conquered Judea amidst a pressure cooker of political turmoil, mostly between resistance groups. Women aren’t allowed to go to the local stonings but make up the majority of the crowds anyway (wearing fake beards). A certain Son of God, whom we only see once, is going around healing the sick, although it’s not always appreciated; we meet an ex-leper whose miraculous cure cost him his panhandling livelihood.
Brian’s quiet life ends when he stumbles upon the People’s Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judean People’s Front, the Popular Front, or the Campaign for a Free Galilee) led by Reg (John Cleese) who often waxes poetic about politics but otherwise isn’t content to do else. His fellow revolutionaries include Stan (Eric Idle) who dreams of transitioning into a woman, and Judith (Sue Jones-Davies) played by an actual woman and not a Python in drag.
Brian’s joining the PFJ hurdles him into a series of hilarious political and religious misadventures. He eventually finds himself mistaken for the Messiah, chased by a city sized population and miscredited as a revolutionary destined to liberate Judea from the Romans. His strange circumstances parallel Jesus in more than a few ways, such as the scene where he fumbles through Parables alongside equally hapless prophets. Biblical miracles are attributed to him. Mandy is grilled about being a virgin. Even Brian’s paternal Roman lineage references the Pantera hyopthesis.
Brian is not meant to be a stand-in for Christ, however, and despite the ongoing controversy over the film, Life of Brian was not intended as a mockery or indictment of Christianity. Rather, the plot and setting provide the perfect outlet for the Pythons to tackle layers upon layers of issues, chief among them religious zealotry. For that purpose, there is no better place to do it than here.
The multitudes find any excuse to keep following Brian despite his pleas. They want a revolution, but their capacity for individuality is as diminished as their ability to comprehend. When Brian screams at his followers to “Fuck off!” a man in the crowd breaks the uncomfortable silence: “How shall we fuck off, O Lord?”
Fanaticism is the target here. People swept up in religious fervors see and hear what they want while exercising an uncanny ability to assign meanings. They also possess, as demonstrated when they sweep away to be executed a nonbeliever in Brian’s divinity, a penchant for cruelty. Life of Brian lampoons the darkest aspects of organized religion, not the messages about loving your neighbor and reserving judgement.
Aside from lampooning pious silliness, Life of Brian also takes a stab at politics, ancient and contemporary. The way the various rebellions gnaw at each other instead of a common enemy is so typical of today’s Internet wars that I’d swear the Pythons predicted the future. I’ve often heard that old truism that history repeats itself. History doesn’t repeat itself. The truth is that nothing ever changes. It’s a strange coincidence that I picked Life of Brian to review a day before the worst election I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Sometimes these things line themselves up to happen.
Hear, hear: the Gospel According to Brian keeps its reserved parking as one of the funniest comedies I have in my collection, possibly film history. And for those still on the fence about whether Life of Brian is an attack on their faith, well, they should get up off their arses to watch and stop just talking about it.
FINAL GRADE: A-