Moment of Truth #231 | Monty Python’s Life of Brian
As a comedy troupe, Monty Python ran just about any topic imaginable through its absurdist filter, sometimes just to see whom amongst its audience might take offense. Those who did tended to self-select themselves as the Python’s next comedic target. The point was to lampoon anything and everything that people hold dear; the more sacred it was, the more worthy it was of parody. So, it figures that the Python’s second movie would be an epic broadside at tradition, politics, power and religion in what is widely—and rightly—considered to be the finest comedy ever filmed: Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
In Roman-occupied Judea, Brian Cohen muddles along his go-nowhere life with his demanding mother and thankless job selling concessions at the local coliseum. He can’t stand the Romans and is mildly proud of his Jewish heritage and would like to make a difference, so when he stumbles across the People’s Front of Judea, he joins them in their revolutionary cause. It all goes wrong, of course, and while trying to escape from the Roman authorities, he pretends to be a holy man by half-heartedly reciting some of the bits and pieces he heard during Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Only he does his job too well, and soon he gathers a following of true believers who look to him as their new Messiah. Despite his various attempts to shake off his flock, Brian is eventually collared by the centurions, sentence to crucifixion, and is left to die on a hill with a whole bunch of his fellow citizens who were all found guilty of something. The End.
Now, that summary might be factually correct, but it does nothing to capture the comedic energy, unpredictability, and sheer genius that pervades this story, which includes a case of mistaken identity at Jesus’ manger, a brawl in the cheap seats at the Sermon on the Mount, a ritual stoning cannot stick to its own script, a crash course in revolutionary Judean politics, another crash course in how to properly conjugate Latin, an object lesson in why some names shouldn’t be laughed at, an alien abduction, a reminder why it’s not a good idea to open your shutters when you’re naked, and the least successful suicide attack in the history of the Middle East. This is the kind of mixture of elements that only the Pythons could have pulled off, and even for them, it’s almost recklessly ambitious. But you’d never know, judging by how seamlessly it all comes together.
Life of Brian manages to intertwine running parodies of left-wing politics, right-wing police states and organized religion with the kind of madcap antics that the Pythons just can’t resist. The result is a unique hilarity that provides perhaps the most linear narrative of any Python film, together with an unusually sympathetic character in Brian himself. Put upon by nearly everyone around him, and thrust into circumstances he never really asked for, Brian is the kind of guy we would feel sorry for if it weren’t for the fact that in the Pythons’ world, people are so universally dim-witted that any predation among people tends to be the work of circumstance more than personal agenda. This is probably the only move you’ll ever see where you don’t feel particularly bad for seeing a whole bunch of people hanging on crosses, and it’s not because of the jaunty little musical number they’re all singing.
It takes a special courage and skill to wring comedy out of subject matter most people revere too much to laugh at. Life of Brian does it by making fun of the time of Jesus, but not Jesus himself. It makes fun of religion, but not of any one faith in particular. It makes fun of true believers, but only the delusional ones. This is the kind of movie where an ex-beggar cured of his leprosy by Jesus gripes that it destroyed his begging career, and then remarks about how even Jesus noted that there’s no pleasing some people.
So much of Life of Brian’s humor is at once both superficial and silly, while commenting on the inherent absurdities that underpin our need for some kind of external authority to do our thinking for us. Whether that framework is traditional, political or religious in nature, it’s all equally ridiculous in the Pythons’ eyes. Women aren’t allowed at stonings, unless, of course, they wear ridiculous fake beards. Imperial Rome is a thing of majesty, but it’s run by people with giggle-inducing speech affectations and names like Biggus Dickus. The glory of godhood takes a left turn when we see it can lead people to sanctify a recently discarded shoe as a holy relic. We are curious little monkeys, and the Pythons aren’t about to let us forget it.
The moment of truth comes during the final scene, when Brian is hung on his crucifix, and he is subsequently abandoned by anybody who could possibly help him. His followers are nowhere to be seen. The feckless People’s Front of Judea thank him for his martyrdom and somehow make a committee meeting even out of that. His love interest, Judith Iscariot, expresses her love for him, and then just leaves him there. Even his own mother comes out not to rescue him, but to berate him for so selfish as to go and get crucified. It’s a delicious irony that anybody who can literally let Brian down chooses to do so figuratively instead. And while Brian is cursing them all out for it, he misses his one chance to claim a reprieve from the Romans, pointing out that ultimately, if we haven’t been saved, it’s probably because we blew our chance to save ourselves. If the last thing you hear once you’ve been crucified is a chorus of idiots blissfully singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” you’ve probably brought it upon yourself, but are too thick to know how. Aren’t we all?