Life of Brian (1979), Terry Jones


An unrepentant and caustic satire of belief systems, Terry Jones’ 1979 Life of Brian, with a reluctant messiah at the centre of its tale of mistaken identity, is not only extremely clever and funny, but also, intelligent and subtle in its critique of political idealism and credulity.

life-of-brian-2It is quite funny – actually, rather hilarious indeed!! – that in a film which supposedly intends to criticise religious beliefs, the best jokes are directed at other subjects. Through political commentary, cultural reference, psychological insight and philosophical discussion, Life of Brian – this laugh-out loud movie!! – has a go at every absurd aspect of the human condition.

— Here… I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb – which it is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’ – but that he can have the right to have babies? ooooo oo  — Good idea, Judith. We should fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother… sister, sorry! ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo oooo — What’s the point!? ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo — What? ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooo — What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?! ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo oooooo — It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression. ooooo ooooo ooo — It is symbolic of his struggle against reality.

At the beginning of the first century of our Lord, Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) is born. Around the age of 30 he seems disillusioned; keen to find some meaning to his life. While selling food at the arena, where the crowd is enjoying a fight between a semi-naked man and a gladiator, Brian meets the leaders of a resistance group, Reg (John Cleese), Francis (Michael Palin), Stan (Eric Idle) and Judith (Sue Jones-Davis). He wants to join their group, the People’s Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judean People’s Front or the Judean Popular People’s Front!!). After some episodes of revolt against the Roman state, Brian gives a little sermon, and is then taken for the messiah. Even though he is reluctant to assume such role, at the end, he is nonetheless crucified.

..Only Naughty Boys Will Think for Themselves…

The fact that the story is flimsy, that six actors play more than 40 roles, and that midway through the film, the main character is saved by aliens after falling from a tower, only highlights the geniality of Life of Brian. True, part of the reason the film endures is that it is funny as hell, but there’s more to it than the laugh-out loud moments. The film deals with intellectual issues in a serious manner through its silliness. There is a down to earth aspect to the comedy – which is played straight – that only enhances the sense of absurdity concerning man and his beliefs.

It is this strange dichotomy – a thin story, with juvenile humour added to it, interspersed with serious philosophical commentary – that lifts the film from being simply a funny movie. The essence of the ideas discussed in the movie are not necessarily profound – some of these are insightful and relevant, but nothing original to the student of introductory philosophy and politics. However, even well-educated people might need reminding of the absurdity of human activities and political leanings, the power of ideas and the fascinating spell cast on people by power itself.

cropped-life-of-brian-1.jpg   life-of-brian-3

And there is not a better group of artist-cum-clowns than the Pythons to deliver such message. Even if at first, we dismiss the message that stands beside a penis joke, eventually, the idea makes its point. Because we can’t get enough of Pontius Pilates uttering ‘Biggus Dickus’ or ‘Incontinentia Buttocks’, we also get to understand the absurdity of too much power or the commentary on: social justice (‘It’s the meek… they have a hell of a time.’); crowd mentality (‘Yes! We’re all individuals!… Yes! We’re all different!’); religious credulity (‘I was blind and now I can see.’); cold bureaucratic protocol (‘Crucifixion? Good. Out of the door; line on the left; one cross each.’)

One of the funniest sketches of the film – and arguably, a solid critique of religious absurdity – comes just before the one-hour mark, when the crowd running after Brian – their new messiah – stop to analyse the significance of one of his sandals, left behind during the chase. The diverging interpretations offered, not only sound highly plausible as a depiction on the origins of religious or political institutions, but also highlight the important role played by disciples, second-in-command or fan-boys, when forming such institutions. It is a sad fact that the fundamentals of the doctrine of the original thinker (say, Jesus Christ, Adam Smith or Friedrich Nietzsche) are usually distorted, or worst, totally forgotten.

The whole film illustrates this process in a compelling and engaging way. So, I laugh and you laugh – some people don’t, actually – but Life of Brian is a hilarious masterpiece with a serious element of thinking to it. And since under certain circumstances, most of us would follow a leader capable of assuaging our sense of insecurity, the whole subject is no laughing matter.

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