By Kenneth Turan
Times Staff Writer
April 30, 2004
Partially to take advantage of the brouhaha surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and partially because it is the film's 25th anniversary, "Monty Python's Life of Brian" is back on the big screen, its free-form humor and fearless blasphemy still intact and as potent as ever.
Though it begins in "Judea, AD 33, Saturday afternoon, about tea time," technically this is not the story of Jesus at all. It follows instead a Judean contemporary, one Brian Cohen, who gets repeatedly mistaken for a messiah by overly zealous folks from the first day of his life right up to the last.
In the hands of the British Python troupe, who in today's pallid world look even more like giants of comedy than they originally did, Brian's story turns into a satire of the religious impulse, political correctness and anything else the Pythons can think of.
For these six individuals (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin) were never unwilling to detour from the plotline to try their hand at whatever piece of silliness they could imagine.
So Brian (Chapman) escapes from a tight spot on a suddenly materializing spaceship and gets teased for being a jailer's pet by a fellow prisoner who screams, "What wouldn't I give to be spat in the face?" And the film's closing credits improbably ask, "Why not go see 'La Notte'?"
Making all this even crazier is that each of the Pythons, very much including director Jones, plays a minimum of three roles and as many as 12. That's the number for Palin, who does everything from an effete Pontius Pilate to a bouncy beggar and former leper trying to make the best of an unexpected cure that cut into his source of income.
Part of the reason the Pythons are so funny is their fearlessness. The only notion they find sacrilegious is the idea that anything might be too sacred to take jabs at. So their preeminently clever humor has fun at the expense of propriety as well as Jewish and Christian concerns, leaving everyone dazzled by their effrontery.
The Pythons also excel at putting long-gone biblical times into a modern context. So you have the spectacle of a children's matinee at the local coliseum and the notion of stone vendors selling everything from boulders to gravel to those who show up empty-handed at a stoning.
"Life of Brian" (at selected theaters) starts roughly when Brian's life does, with the celebrated but direction-challenged three wise men taking a wrong turn and ending up at baby Brian's crib, with his mother Mandy (director Jones) grumbling about how tramping around at all hours "doesn't sound very wise to me" and wondering "what is myrrh, anyway?"
One of "Brian's" most celebrated set-pieces, and one of the few that actually involves Jesus, is the Sermon on the Mount sequence. It presents that talk as it might have sounded to the people way at the back of the crowd, who earnestly try to puzzle out the meaning of sentiments like "blessed are the cheese-makers."
The turning point of young Brian's life turns out to be his joining of the People's Front of Judea, not to be confused with the Judean People's Front or several other fringe political groups that are better at splitting hairs than effecting any kind of radical political change.
Shot in Tunisia on a budget large enough ($4 million) to allow for an epic biblical look, "Brian" was financed by Beatle George Harrison after original financier BMI got cold feet.
As with Gibson's "Passion," the more people protested this film, the higher its grosses became. "They have actually made me rich," Python Cleese said of the protesters. "I feel we should send them a crate of champagne."
The more things change, the more we have to laugh if we are to have a prayer of remaining sane, and the Pythons are the best possible step in that direction.
'Life of Brian'
MPAA rating: R
Graham Chapman...Brian Cohen/ensemble
Terry Jones...Mandy Cohen/ensemble
Michael Palin...Pontius Pilate/ensemble
Presented by Rainbow Releasing. Director Terry Jones. Producer John Goldstone. Executive producers George Harrison, Denis O'Brien. Screenplay by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin. Cinematographer Peter Biziou. Editor Julian Doyle. Costume designers Hazel Pethig, Charles Knode. Music Geoffrey Burgon. Art director Roger Christian. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's Pasadena Playhouse, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Regency Lido Theatre, 3459 Via Lido Newport Beach, (949) 673-8350.
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