Judge Erich Asperschlager is banned in Britain.
"The year is 1979, and big chunks of scrolling text are still all the rage…"
I don't usually like biopics. They tend to confuse storytelling with recounting events. They are badly paced, predictable, and overstuffed. Worst of all, everyone involved takes things too seriously. In most cases, you're better off spending those two hours reading, listening to, or watching the work of the famous person who inspired the film. There are exceptions, of course. Holy Flying Circus is essentially a biopic of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Rather than going for a sweeping saga of the group from inception to dissolution, however, the film focuses on a specific event: the UK controversy surrounding the release of their religious comedy Monty Python's Life of Brian. It is a fascinating tale, pitting the Pythons against close-minded bureaucrats, Church leaders, and public opinion, all building to a head with a live debate on the popular talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Holy Flying Circus tells that story with actors who look and sound like the Pythons. On paper it sounds like any other movie based on a true story. It's not.
Facts of the Case
Having just finished Life of Brian, the members of Monty Python—John Cleese (Darren Boyd, Four Lions), Michael Palin (Charles Edwards, Batman Begins), Terry Jones (Rufus Jones, Mongrels), Eric Idle (Steve Punt, Me, You and Him), Graham Chapman (Thomas Fisher, Kingdom), and Terry Gilliam (Phil Nichol, Fur TV)—are shocked by the outrage that greets its release. The film is banned throughout Britain and labeled as blasphemous by the Church for its supposed ridiculing of Christ. As the controversy rages, the group goes on the defensive, battling their critics and each other.
Holy Flying Circus isn't just a film about Monty Python, it's also a faux Python film, complete with animated sequences, surreal fantasy, and meta jokes. The made-for-BBC movie—written by Tony Roche and directed by Owen Harris—doesn't match the quality of the Python's material, but it's plenty funny. The more you know about Monty Python, the funnier it gets. Harris and Roche are so enamored with the idea of making their own Python film that they even cast the actor who plays Terry Jones to play Michael Palin's wife, as though he were Terry Jones playing the part.
The film's structure and humor run a rough parallel with Brian, which is more about mindless, unbending dogma than it is about the founding of Christianity. In Holy Flying Circus, the Python troupe stand in for Brian, bewildered that their comedy film has been mistaken for something it's not. Their primary (fictional) opposition is the Popular People's Church of St. Sophia, a militant religious group that manages to be even more offensive than the object of their protest, thanks to a prominent member with Tourette's. While the Pythons are able to shrug off most of the external pressure, it's not as easy to dismiss problems within the group.
At the center of that struggle are "nicest man in the world" Michael Palin and the argumentative John Cleese. Palin wants to smooth things over so that the film can be seen, while Cleese takes a more hard line approach. They tussle over whether or not the group should take part in a televised debate. Little wonder, then, that when the group accepts the BBC's invitation, Cleese and Palin are the ones who get in front of the cameras. Who knows whether their real-life counterparts went through the same process before going on TV. Here, it makes for good drama, and creates a forum for the film's big ideas about censorship, religion, and breaking taboos. In a pivotal scene, John and Michael prepare for the impending debate by having their own argument. They talk about comedy, faith, and responsibility. It's a serious discussion—until it isn't. Then, it's an elaborate puppet sword fight. I told you this movie is weird.
Holy Flying Circus has a pitch-perfect cast. Each group member is as easily identifiable by look and personality as by impression. Although Darren Boyd's Cleese and Charles Edwards's Palin have the most screentime, the other Python-esque players aren't wasted. Rufus Jones pulls double duty as Terry Jones and Mrs. Palin, and nails both. Once the man-in-a-dress joke wears off, Edwards and Jones are incredibly sweet together. Their scenes together are serious, moving, and even romantic. Steve Punt, Thomas Fisher, and Phil Nichol are good sports as moneygrubber Eric, gay Graham, and Terry the American. Even though they don't have much to do, they do it very well.
Holy Flying Circus shows just how far Britain has come since Life of Brian was banned by 39 local councils. It makes the Python's mild heresies seem like a Southern Baptist tent revival. Brian begins with the wise men walking into the wrong manger. This film begins with Jesus (Ben Crispin) farting in someone's face. Later, Jesus and God (played by Stephen Fry) watch the TV debate and bicker—God threatens to spoil the outcome, so Jesus turns his beer into water. Brian was banned from British television until 1995. This made-for-TV movie is so packed with obscenities, I doubt it would squeak through the MPAA with an R rating. For all of our so-called progress, Holy Flying Circus's anti-censorship message still resonates today. The power of religious institutions has lessened, replaced by political correctness and media pressure, but as long as comedians push boundaries, people will overreact. Holy Flying Circus is so focused on religion that it misses the chance to take a broader stance against prejudice and ignorance.
The film centers around the Friday Night, Saturday Morning debate that pitted Cleese and Palin against Bishop Mervyn Stockwood and Catholic journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. The real debate is fascinating to watch, with the comedians being reasonable and respectful while the opposition takes cheap shots in their claim that Brian is blasphemy. Muggeridge in particular laid into the Pythons, taking as many jabs at the movie—which he calls Ôtenth rate"—as its supposed theological problems. Holy Flying Circus recreates the event, but makes the mistake of trying to heighten the drama. All Roche and Harris needed to do was have the actors speak the real words. Instead, the scene is buried under tense music, cutting to reaction shots that make the church's representatives sound meaner and more petty than they actually were. To be fair, the Blu-ray cover clearly states the film is "completely untrue," but in this case the truth is more compelling than the fiction.
Holy Flying Circus comes to Blu-ray with a 1080i transfer. Even with that pesky "i" it's a sharp, good-looking picture. If it wasn't for the 2.0 stereo-only audio mix, it would be easy to mistake this TV movie for a theatrical release. It comes with the following standard-definition bonus features:
• Deleted Scenes: The alternate film intro "Michael Palin's Diary" (1:34); "The Two Yorkshiremen" (1:08); and "Dick and Balls Get Worked Up" (1:20), in which two unfortunately named BBC programmers (played by Jason Thorpe and Paul Chahidi) visit Palin at home.
• Outtakes (19:23): As fun as these gaffes and bloopers are, they last nearly 20 minutes. I'd much rather this had been cut down to make room for video of the original TV debate instead.
• "The Making of the Holy Flying Circus Phonotrope" (4:32): This featurette showcases the surprising amount of work that went into the credit sequence apparatus—an animation effect most viewers will probably assume was created digitally. It also includes footage of the phonotrope in action during the opening credits.
• 30 Production Stills, mostly of the cast, navigable by remote.
Holy Flying Circus solves the problems that plague most docudramas, trading melodrama for surreal comedy, focusing in on one specific event, and not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. It helps that the film's subjects are Monty Python, comedians who built a career out of skewering blowhards, and mixing historical figures with modern sensibilities. That they got into trouble for incorporating Biblical figures into their third film isn't as surprising as the violent censorship that followed its release. Although Holy Flying Circus stumbles when it lets the anti-religion message hijack the film, it tells the Python's story in a clever, funny way that pays tribute to the comedians themselves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
• Deleted Scenes
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