At Cross Purposes
Anthony Lane on Monty Python's Life of Brian, from the May 3, 2004, issue of The New Yorker:
This week sees the rerelease of "Monty Python's Life of Brian." What has the movie done, you may ask, to earn the privilege of a Second Coming? True, it first showed twenty-five years ago, but then so did "Kramer vs. Kramer," and the public has yet to clamor for a fresh look at Dustin Hoffman playing split-the-kid with Meryl Streep. On the other hand, one cannot help imagining the slow grins that spread across the faces of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and the film's director, Terry Jones, when they heard that "The Passion of the Christ" had racked up three hundred million dollars and rising. Now, if ever, was the time to let Brian out of his cage.
For the benefit of any Python virgins, the story runs as follows: Brian (Graham Chapman) is born down the street from Jesus Christ. Thirty-three years later, Brian joins the People's Front of Judaea (not to be confused with the Judaean People's Front), sworn to defeat the Roman oppressors. From this point, without really trying, he topples into trouble—pursued by admirers, arrested, brought before Pontius Pilate, and sentenced to death. In the final scene, he is crucified, with other ne'er-do-wells, upon a hill; they sing themselves into the afterlife with glee.
Brian himself is a ne'er-do-badly who brims with a gentle exasperation, aghast at the frothing certainties of his fellow-men. I failed to notice that niceness before, but then, as a teen-ager, I wasn't looking for it; the Python fan base was a heaving cluster of schoolkids and students, and we yearned for the team to go on the attack, even if we—and, in retrospect, they themselves—weren't entirely sure what the target was. Cowardice prevented me from voicing my doubts, but I used to find the TV programs too skittish and splintered for their own good. The best cure for that fragmentation was to bind it with the kind of narrative glue—one can hardly call it rigor—that holds together "Life of Brian." Only here, and in patches of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," does the Python squeeze leave an enduring mark.
What is also apparent now is the folly—heartfelt but misplaced, as with nearly all grievances against works of fiction—of those who took offense at "Life of Brian." The opening scene makes it plain that we are watching not a disguised life of Christ but the diary of a nobody, whose life merely grazes against that of the Messiah. The grazing itself is the one serious moment in a farcical film; there is a brief closeup of Brian looking stirred and intrigued as he listens to Jesus deliver, utterly straight, the Sermon on the Mount. The remainder of the movie snaps at extremity: at the revolutionaries who can muster any number of committee meetings but cannot actually rouse themselves to revolt ("Right, this calls for immediate discussion"), at the mob of disciples who harry Brian with a devotion that verges on the violent (compare the front page of any newspaper in the past month), and, not least, at the bug-eyed paranoia of Pontius Pilate. He is played by Michael Palin, who also gives us the funniest thing in the film, a sweet old prophet preaching that whereof he hath absolutely no clue: "There shall at that time be rumors of things going astray ... erm ... and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are."
"Life of Brian" contains not a shred of blasphemy. It lacks the withering designs of the true heretic—the cruel intent that led Buñuel, say, to stage his boozy parody of the Last Supper, in "Viridiana." The Pythons are enlightened jesters, whose scorn is reserved for those who persist in walking in darkness, although the anniversary release of "Life of Brian" strikes me not so much as a frontal assault on "The Passion of the Christ"—and surely some enterprising theatre owner will screen them as a double bill—as a sharp sideways nudge, bright with opportunism. After all, nobody could deny that Gibson fulfills his believer's task as energetically as Palin, Cleese, and the rest of the gang launch their liberal raids. To complain that "The Passion of the Christ" is possessed by death makes no sense, because Christianity itself makes no sense without the shroud of death; the story of Jesus, shorn of its climactic sufferings, dwindles into a set of difficult ethics. The story of Brian, however, is possessed by life. For all its scruffiness, the lurching strike-rate of its gags, and the unmistakable smell of amateur dramatics given off by its repertory of rotating players with their stick-on Ted Nugent beards, "Life of Brian" jitters with good will.