Monty Python has never been known for being particularly friendly to organized religion in general, and Christianity specifically. When they are not taking potshots at my Faith, I find much of what they do to be funny. My first exposure to them is more to the former, which was Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). It is about a farcical quest for the Chalice that Jesus used at the Last Supper, combining medieval and religious traditions. The suggestion is that people place too much importance on dogma, hence their making fun of it. This is carried to a higher level with Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). This is probably why I find it to be less funny.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian begins with a nativity. Notice that I did not use capitalizations? That is because the Three Wise Men travel to the wrong nativity. By the way, I should add before continuing that the cast that comprises Monty Python fills several roles throughout, so I will only be giving actor and character names when necessary. I suppose I could tell you that they initially come to Brian Cohen’s (Graham Chapman) birth place, though his mother, Mandy Cohen (Terry Jones), is not thrilled by their presence. She changes her mind, though, when they mention the gifts they have brought for the Messiah. Unfortunately, for her, this is when they realize they are in the wrong place and head to the correct manger. That is, of course, that in which can be found Jesus of Nazareth (Kenneth Colley), who we see in the next scene giving the Beatitudes. As the camera pans out from Our Savior, we see that it is quite a large crowd. In fact, it is so big that Brian and his mother standing in the back cannot hear what is being said, and thus many of the words are being poorly filtered back to them. Brian, to his credit, is intent on listening, but it is made difficult by a fight starting between others nearby over comments about large noses. Another person catching Brian’s eye is Judith Iscariot (Sue Jones-Davies). She is a member of the People’s Front of Judea, not to be confused with the Judean People’s Front, or any other combination of those words. Still, membership into this group, supposedly dedicated to the liberation of Judea from the Romans by any means necessary, is not automatic. To prove his worth to them, and Judith particularly, they ask Brian to paint a pro-Judean freedom slogan on a statue in the Roman forum. He is caught mid-sentence by group of Roman soldiers. Yet, instead of arresting him, they correct his Latin grammar and tell him to right the same thing 100 times over on the surrounding walls. The next set of legionaries marches by just as he is finishing, and these new ones attempt to incarcerate him. He escapes, but is soon back to helping the People’s Front of Judea. This time they plan to kidnap the wife of Pontius Pilate (Terry Gilliam). Brian’s luck runs out here, and he is the only one who ends up in jail. His luck returns, though, when he is brought before Pilate and the Roman governor’s speech impediment causes everyone to laugh so hard that Brian runs off without their notice. His frantic flight sees him transported for a brief time by space aliens, which is weird but on message. Anyway, what saves him this time is “yeeting” (as the kids might say) a prophet standing outside of the Roman forum. Hoping to keep up this new cover as Roman guards begin to enter the area, he says a few of the lines that he remembers from hearing Jesus. It apparently impresses the first few people that are present, and soon they start to believe that he is the Messiah. Brian wants nothing to do with such notoriety, though this is complicated by a quickly swelling crowd who are all madly eager to believe that Brian is their savior. While they argue over the holiness of a sandal he accidentally loses, or a drinking gourd he uses once, all he can tell them is to go away. In his desperate dash, he comes across Judith, who has heard the clamor of the crowds and now thinks Brian can be a real asset to the People’s Front of Judea. Hence, they sleep together. The following morning he awakens and greets his fervent followers in the buff, much to his embarrassment. His bid to once more to get out of their demands lands him again in Roman custody. Remember Pilate’s speech impediment? Well, it mainly involves him not being able to pronounce the letter “r.” And, since this movie is slightly blasphemous, they make this all happen on the Passover. This means that Pilate can release one prisoner to the people. Once they finally come to understand that they could choose Brian, a number of other people claim to be him. It results in the wrong person being released, and all the other “Brians,” including the real one, being crucified. Brian only wants his freedom, but all his friends want to do is praise him for his martyrdom. There are some other anti-climactic moments before the final shot of them all on their crosses. One of their lot (Eric Idle) tries to cheer them all up by singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Of course, this song sung at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian is meant to be ironic. When one is about to die a gruesome death on a cross, the last thing one would likely be thinking is anything cheerful. This is underscored by the various means by which Brian attempted to get out of this fate. Of course, this is not what Jesus did, though he did once pray for it. By putting Brian in the place of the true Messiah, the film is trying to suggest that anyone would react in this way. After all, Jesus was fully human, no? He was not just human, however, and the belief in His dual nature is one of the pillars of the Faith. Yet, I will steer away from anything too in-depth theologically. Instead, the easier point to make is about the song. If you believe as we Catholics and Christians do, you will note that Jesus dying on the Cross was the best thing to ever happen to humanity. He did it for the forgiveness of our sins, then, now, and into the future. His act made us His own, and bought for those who follow Him a place in Heaven. If you understand Faith in this matter, that is not simply the “bright side of life,” it is the best side.
There is a fair bit of objectionable material in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Aside from the nudity, I am pretty sure John Cleese is in partial black face playing one of the Three Wise Men. That is not ideal. At any rate, I am rather ambivalent about this one. The beginning and end are interesting, but you can keep everything else.