MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN - DVD review

The bonus features ought to please Python fans.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

I once saw a magazine cartoon that showed two homeless men with no legs. They were on roller-boards, using flat-irons in both hands to propel them. As they watched another homeless man go by who was just a head mounted on a roller-board, one of them quipped, "You know, you always think you have it rough, until you see the next guy."

You don't forget a gag like that. Nor do you forget the image of a row of malefactors being crucified, all of them singing, "Always look on the bright side of life." Or the sight of poor Brian--who had the misfortune of being born in the stable NEXT to Jesus on that first Christmas night, and spent the rest of his life trying to shed the residual aura that apparently fell upon him--running away from people who think he's the Messiah. One of his "followers" picks up a gourd that's been dropped during the fracas and holds it up to the rest, pronouncing it a sign. "Follow the gourd!" Then a would-be member of these sects in the city notices a sandal that Brian had lost during his escape, picks it up, and says, "No, follow the shoe!"

That kind of irreverence--however spot-on the religious satire might be--caused the Roman Catholic Church to condemn "Monty Python's Life of Brian" when it was first released in 1979. But that only delighted the Python crew, because, of course, the purpose of satire is to rattle the establishment's foundations. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin certainly do that here. Their collaborative script produced one of the two funniest feature films to come out of the twisted Python minds--the other being "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Both films show the troupe's gift for satire, offbeat humor, and parody. In this case, "Life of Brian" isn't just a comic treatise on early Christianity. It's also a wonderful take-off on lavish biblical films like "Ben-Hur," whose block lettering is aped in the title artwork. A number of scenes directly allude to ones from that biblical blockbuster, with even the same sort of music setting the stage.

But I can see where Catholics could get bent out of shape over this one. Monty Python's "Mary" isn't even a virgin, and in a parody of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, poor Brian tries to deliver his parables to a crowd of uncomprehending hecklers. From the Wise Men who take back the gifts they gave to Pontius Pilate in a bit where Centurians can't keep from laughing every time their governor says the name "Biggus Dickus," it's all snorts and giggles. It may not be a way to run a religion but it's sure a way to ruin one, at least for the span of 93 minutes. The paradox is that to enjoy this film you have to know your Bible, but then many of those who do know the Gospels and their story of Christ may well be among the most offended. But I think that it was a stroke of benius to create a parallel life to Christ's, rather than parodying the half-God, half-man himself. It allowed the Pythons to skewer religion and the ways in which its tenets and dogma are formed without directly attacking Jesus . . . who also makes an appearance (Kenneth Colley). Jesus gets ribbed, but only on the periphery. As the crowd walks away from one of the true Messiah's talks, one of them says, in reference to his beatitude that the meek shall inherit the earth, "What Jesus fails to appreciate is that the meek are the problem." This crowd fails to comprehend just about everything Jesus or Brian tries to tell them. Cheesemakers? No, peacemakers!

Not every joke comes at the expense of religion. The Pythons also take a number of shots at Jewish ethnicity and radical political groups. "Excuse me," Brian inquires, "Are you the Judean People's Front?" "Fuck off!" comes the response. "We're the People's Front of Judea." And Pilate's lisp is played for more than a few laughs.

Amid all the gags and Python performers doing their thing it would be easy to forget about the cinematography, but director Terry Jones and his camera crew really did their homework. So many shots recall scenes from "Ben-Hur" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" that the relatively big budget for a whack-job like this (reportedly $4 million) plus location filming in Tunisia really gives "Life of Brian" the look and feel of a serious Cecil B. DeMille religious picture. And that proper showcase makes the jokes seem all the more inappropriate.

Video:
The "Immaculate Edition" features the film "immaculately re-mastered in High Definition," and it looks very good. I've watched this in both DVD and Blu-ray and while the HD print is superior, the DVD isn't a huge drop-off. You notice more graininess in some of the atmospheric shots, but the colors are actually pretty close. The film is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

Audio:
The audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 that really has a pretty narrow spread and a timbre that's just a little light on the bass. The rear speakers also don't get much of a workout, and sometimes the music drowns out the dialogue. I'm guessing the master was no great shakes to work with. But it's not so horrible that you're conscious of it in every scene. You just roll with the Python antics. Subtitles are in English and Portuguese.

Extras:
The bonus features ought to please Python fans. The Anchor Bay release had just a trailer and bios. This one has an hour-long "revelation" on how the "Life of Brian" came to be, featuring the Python bunch in interviews. This is the place to come for behind-the-scenes stories and a refresher course on how many hackles the film raised. There's also a pretty fascinating 110-minute recording by the Pythons of an early screenplay version, read with all the voices (and gusto) you get on the screen.

Wisely, the commentary chores were split up, with Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones teaming up on the first one and John Cleese and buddy Michael Palin doing the second. Both of them are far more serious than I would have expected. There are a few jokes cracked (especially by Cleese and Palin) but these guys are deservedly proud of what they've wrought, and use the commentaries to talk candidly about creative differences that this bunch of egos had and also the technical and behind-the-scenes aspects of putting the film together. I'd rate both commentaries above-average.

A few radio ads by Mrs. Cleese, Mrs. Idle, Mrs. Gilliam, and Michael Palin's dentist are funny for a one-time listen, and five deleted scenes are okay but not hilarious.

Bottom Line:
"Monty Python's Life of Brian" is as irreverent as a film can be, but it's a solid satire and parody that showcases the Python crew at the top of their game.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
7
Extras
8
Film Value
8