`Python's Life of Brian' is the anti-`Passion'

FILM

FilmColumn

July 09, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Inever thought Monty Python's Life of Brian was the troupe's best movie, but after enduring the thunderous certainties of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, watching the Pythons encircle the same story with anarchic arguments worthy of Groucho (and Karl) Marx is a joyous and reviving experience. (It reopens today at the Charles.)

How refreshing: Spats and vicious commentary are the comic backbone of this picture, not tools for its publicity.

This fractured religious fairy tale of a reluctant Messiah born next door to Jesus premiered in 1979 to the usual charges of blasphemy. Yet those clever Python lads used the Jesus story mostly as a skeleton, fleshing it out with lampoons of religious and political sectarianism as pertinent to the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970s as they were to Jerusalem in 33 A.D. Even to me, a mad Python fan, too much of it came off as fey, precious stuff - hijinks from an Oxford or Cambridge common room.

But if Life of Brian had dropped into hundreds of college-town theaters three months ago it might have caused a sensation. And seeing it again made me inordinately thankful for its local return to the big screen. Gibson's ill wind has given this film a new breath of life.

Just as Gibson's movie sets its pummeling tone from his opening showdown between Jesus and Jewish guards, the Python folks set theirs with a disputatious Nativity scene. The Three Wise Men mistake Brian's birthplace for Jesus' and try to hand Brian's mom their gifts. She doubts everything, including the value of the presents. "Well, um, if you're dropping by again, do pop in," she tells them as they go, "and thanks a lot for the gold and frankincense, but don't worry too much about the myrrh next time, all right?" She can barely say, "Well, weren't they nice? Out of their bloody minds, but still," before the Wise Men spot their true savior and take back their valuables.

After Brian grows to manhood, he hears the Sermon on the Mount from a distance, where the fringe crowd must engage in instant analysis to make sense of any of it. One onlooker says he thinks he heard, "Blessed are the cheesemakers"; another asks, "What's so special about the cheesemakers?" and a third responds, "Obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."

Soon, Brian becomes a member of the People's Front of Judea - not to be confused with the despised Judean People's Front - and becomes enmeshed in revolutionary debates. "Apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" asks the PFJ leader, Reg.

Later, Brian temporarily accepts Messiah status only because a girl out-argues him when she says that the true Messiah would, like Brian, deny that he's the Messiah.

In this farcical tribute to the power of verbal wrangling, the whole troupe is in limber vocal and physical form, but John Cleese is particularly feisty as Reg. In Monty Python's Life of Brian, he gets to utter what could be the key John Cleese line: "What Jesus fails to appreciate is that it's the meek who are the problem. "

The run at the Charles is open-ended; the movie is deliciously open-minded.

For more information, visit www. TheCharles.com or call 410-727-FILM.

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