One of the things to love about well-crafted satire and parody is the clear love that the creators have for what their spoofing. After all, Shaun of the Dead wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t clear that Wright, Pegg, and Frost have a deep, potentially unbridled, love for the zombie movies of Romero. Airplane!, aside from it’s rapid-fire jokes, is effective because the Zuckers and Abrahams clearly cared for disaster movies, specifically those relating to air travel. It’s also why the Scary Movies series doesn’t really work. A collection of jokes and throw-away references does not a satire or parody make.
Of course, leave it to the brilliant minds behind Monty Python to take their lens and focus it on a very touchy subject. That brings us to today’s review, which is a holiday movie, but fairly loosely.
Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian (1979)
Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) was born just a few doors down from another baby. That baby? Jesus Christ. Of course, with two children being born so close together, the wisemen, following a star, got a little confused, and first went to baby Brian, which set him on the path of destiny. Brian grows, becoming idealistic, and he fights to get the Romans out of Judea. After escaping from Pontius Pilate. Brian is forced to hide by joining a gaggle of prophets, and he starts saying truisms that carry a slightly religious bent. This leads to Brian starting to amass followers, who proceed to declare him the Messiah, despite his (and his mother’s) protestations.
Naturally, things get a little out of control, and eventually Brian finds himself brought before Pilate once again. He is sentenced to crucifixion. Even in those moments, Brian’s life does mirror that of Jesus in some ways, as those who allied themselves with Brian show up at his feet. However, instead of telling his followers that he must do this for the good of all mankind, Brian is instead left hanging by his closest allies, as they intend to use him as a symbol in their fight. Brian’s last memories are those of the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, being sung by his fellow prisoners.
When arguing about which Monty Python film is the best one, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is rightly mentioned. However, I truly believe that Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a better film. It may not have the sheer volume of quotable lines that Holy Grail has, but what it wins out with is a true, purposefully-plotted narrative. Because of the nature of the different subject matters, Holy Grail worked as a film that grew from a sketch comedy troupe, as many of the scenes are only loosely tied together to create the overarching story. In Life of Brian, they went above and beyond, crafting a film that wasn’t as much about the random moments as it was about how everything impacts Brian. They also used the film as a way to skewer religious fanaticism, and showed what can potentially happen (albeit in a comedic way) when people get too wrapped up in a notion, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. In many ways, Life of Brian champions the story of Jesus, while taking the time to have a little fun with the concept of the wrong person for the job. Of course, the film also finds a way to skewer the political climate it was made in, something that the Monty Python boys simply couldn’t avoid doing.
Part of what makes this film stand-out, aside from the deft handling of the satire and parody contained within, revolves around the portrayal of Brian. Chapman was generally used as an authority figure in the Python sketches, although his authority (even extending to his General character, who could end other sketches due to excess “silliness”) was often subverted. It’s why he was their default for King Arthur in Holy Grail. And it probably had a good deal to do with why he portrayed Brian. While some of the other members of the troupe (specifically, I’m thinking either Idle or Cleese) could have filled out the role, it was Chapman who was able to lend the character both the gravitas needed to make him an analogy, and the befuddlement necessary to keep the comedy involved in the film. After all, it isn’t common to be able to draw laughs from an audience while the main character is about to suffer a terrible fate, but, through Chapman’s reactions to what is going on around him, we’re allowed to laugh, and help release the tension of the moment, while still holding on to the ideas that the film is poking fun at.
And that’s really the key, isn’t it? Well-crafted comedy of this sort is poking fun. It isn’t lambasting or trying to dismantle its subject matter. It’s giving a gentle nudge in the ribs, casting a light of ridiculousness on the entire proceedings, and allowing those who partake to see some of the silliness that’s involved in. Maybe that silliness will get elevated, maybe it will get dropped entirely, or maybe it will remain as it is. However, by shining a light on it, more people will recognize it for what it is, and, hopefully, be more willing to give their own gentle nudges.