Criterion // 1979 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // November 9th, 1999
See the movie that's controversial, sacrilegious, and blasphemous. But if that's not playing, see The Life of Brian.
Life of Brian is one of the finest comedies of the last twenty years. But it's so much more than that. There are layers upon layers in this film, some of them only accessible on multiple viewings. And it is worth every viewing that you can give it. Filled with terrific performances all the way around, Life of Brian is a cinematic triumph. And Criterion gives this film all the respect it deserves.
Monty Python have done terrific work through the years, but none better than Life of Brian. It is clearly their most complete film. While The Holy Grail suffers from limitations of budget and story, hip-hopping from segment to segment and bit to bit, it does lack a certain cohesion. No doubt a part of that is attributable to the fact that both Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam directed The Holy Grail. In fact, the schizophrenic result of that marriage from hell is alluded to here in the extras. Apparently, it drove everyone mad, with the both of them running around and barking orders. As a result, this film is directed ONLY by Terry Jones and has a much clearer vision of what it wants to be when it grows up.
You may certainly argue that bits and pieces of comedy was what Monty Python was all about, and who the heck needs a through line anyway. Well, yes. That's true I suppose. But this film's complete story line cradles and suckles such wonderful comedy bits as "What have the Roman's done for us lately" and a group of crucified Jews arguing about a Jews-only section and then singing "Always look on the bright side of life." I mean how much more complete can it get?
The best part of Life of Brian is that it contains many layers. Layers that are there to either "get" or not, and your enjoyment of the film will not be diminished if you don't "get" any of them. It's funny on the surface. But it also acts as a bit of a scathing social commentary on many of the following subjects: politics of repression, gender equity and gender roles, history and much more. It even predates, yet to a degree presupposes the politically correct movement that was to come and then beats the hell out of that too.
The amazing thing about Life of Brian 's release was the way in which it was received by many religious groups. While the story tells the life of poor Brian, a chap who just happened to be mistaken for the Messiah a few times in his life, it is really not a scathing attack on Christianity, or the life of Christ. Even so, it was boycotted, banned, smeared and much worse by many religious groups both here and abroad. I guess some people just need something to scream about.
Graham Chapman plays Brian, our hero. The film opens with Brian being mistaken for the Messiah by the three wise men, who after a funny bit, discover their mistake and reclaim their gifts and head down the street to that other manger. Next, we see Brian and his mother standing at the back during the Sermon on the Mount and, slightly out of earshot, misinterpreting a good portion thereof. "Blessed are the cheese-makers" and "Blessed are the Greeks." From there Mother and Son move on to a stoning, stopping along the way to purchase a few good stones and a bag of gravel from a vendor.
And so it goes until our intrepid anti-hero falls in with a group of terrorists called the People's Front of Judea, headed by John Cleese's Reg. Reg and the crew can do little but talk about action, and suddenly they have a convert in Brian who actually goes out and does what they've been talking about all along. They plan an assault on the palace to kidnap Pilate's wife and issue their demands, which leads to the funniest bit in the movie in my opinion, with Reg asking, "What have the Roman's done for us lately?" which elicits a litany of time-tested social improvements like running water and crime control. Funny stuff. While executing that plan, they run into the Judean People's Front, their avowed enemy, and Brian is captured.
Brian escapes to the headquarters of the group and Cleese shows up again as the Centurion leading a group of military types that are looking for Brian. Brian makes a daring escape posing as a prophet and after stopping mid-sentence (after his pursuers have given up and he no longer needs to hold onto his charade) he is mistaken for the Messiah by those that were listening to him, as they assume some mystery to his commentary (or lack thereof). Things only get worse as poor Brian winds up captured again and is sentenced to be crucified. Poor guy. Enough about the film, let's move on to the disc itself.
While Life of Brian has been out for some time now in other forms, this is a new disc presented by The Criterion Collection and it is the definitive copy. Essentially a rehash of the earlier laserdisc edition, it is loaded with extras, and includes not one but two commentaries by many of the players. The first commentary track is with Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle, while the second has comments by John Cleese and Michael Palin. Unfortunately, at the time these were recorded, Graham Chapman had passed away into that cartoon of the great beyond, and he is sorely missed. Nevertheless, these tracks are outstanding. The disc also includes five deleted scenes, the original theatrical trailer and four original British radio ads many featuring the players' mothers pleading with the listener to see Life of Brian. Very funny stuff.
But the real gem here is the excellent documentary shot during the making of Life of Brian, which is perhaps the best documentary I have yet seen. It goes quite deeply into the formation of Monty Python and lets us behind the curtain, not just of the film itself, but of their players and their relationships with each other. For instance we learn that during the shooting of The Holy Grail, Chapman was so sauced that he could only remember a few lines at a time. The segment is filled with such insights and it is a welcome addition to the disc.
The disc contains a 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer. Unfortunately, the image does not measure up to the best available transfers. The opening scenes of the film particularly seem very soft and grainy. With a washed out color palette and soft desert colors, I guess that was largely inevitable. Things do get quite a bit better as the movie progresses, and I am quite sure this is as good as Life of Brian has looked for some time.
The audio is also problematic to a degree, through no fault of Criterion. May scenes are less than intelligible, due to the way the film was recorded and due to the heavy British accents and put-on accents of the characters and players. Thankfully, Criterion has seen fit to include English subtitles, which I almost recommend using the first time you watch the disc -- especially if you are not already familiar with the movie. The audio is a stereo presentation with little use of surrounds or LFE channels, which is typical of Criterion. They are the consummate purists who want nothing more than to preserve the film in it's original state as best as possible. Certainly, with a film like this, one can hardly blame them for not going back and remastering for 5.1, as it wouldn't have added a thing to the presentation.
Life of Brian is a masterpiece of comedy, social commentary, biting satire, and overall, British humor. If you have never seen it, rent it. If you have seen it, buy it. If you love it, buy this disc from Criterion. It is worth every penny, no matter the cost!
The film and disc are easily acquitted. The few drawbacks of the disc are the result of the original material.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track with Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones
* Commentary Track with John Cleese and Michael Palin
* Theatrical Trailer
* Deleted Scenes with Commentary
* Four British Radio Ads