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Fwiends, Womans, Countwymen: Michael Palin mangles his syllables as Pontius Pilate.

Nailed Again

Not a Mel Gibson film--Monty Python's 1979 'Life of Brian' is resurrected, and not a moment too soon

By Richard von Busack

OPPORTUNISTIC? Do the math; it has been exactly 25 years this summer since the release of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Since its release, the film has been a longstanding joke on "those who mistake the map for the terrain," as the majestic John Cleese said on KQED recently. In these trying times, the inspirational story of Brian of Nazareth--political pawn, crucified shmendrick--cannot but win new converts.

Brian (Graham Chapman, meek and mild) is stuck in Judea, C.E. 33. He lives with his Jewish mom (Terry Jones), a prostitute to the occupying Romans, impregnated and abandoned by a centurion: "Promised me the known world, 'e did. And then, boom, like a rat out of an aqueduct." Like so many tragic mulattoes before and since, Brian turns to radical politics. He is recruited by the People's Front of Judea, not to be confused with the Judean People's Front. As Brian's first political action is a success, he is lured into riskier schemes and becomes a messiah despite himself. Finally, he is hauled before the judge: Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin), one of the world's great buggerers of the letter "R," a brother to Elmer Fudd and Mawene Dietwich. Palin's sensational timing of the film's famous dick joke--or rather Biggus Dickus joke--is still convulsive to us Python fans. If no one else.

Yet Life of Brian is often angry stuff. Maybe this is due to increasing friction within the Pythons. But the film reflects the political stresses of the pre-Thatcher age and the group's fury at dithering politicos and an impotent left wing. Factionalists are the sworn enemy here. On the one hand: quarrelsome disciples who fight over whether Brian's sandal or his gourd is more holy. On the other: the endless political hair-splitting of the People's Front of Judea, led by the grease-slick Cleese. What a memorable savaging of every all-talk, no-action political group, whose salient feature is their mule-headed refusal to make common cause. Religion harasses Brian, but politics kills him.

Mostly, the movie is the sum of its characters. Here, again, is Palin, in his satin toga and golden laurels, twittering, "Wome is your fweind!" And Jones' crowlike moan as he tries to shoo away the three Magi. And Cleese--the martinet's martinet--and his fierce insistence on the right declension of Latin grammar, despite what the words happen to be saying. (The small-minded adore proper form over content: that's the movie's theme.) And Palin again, as a bearded street preacher, reciting worrisome passages from the apocalyptic Book of Cyril. And Eric Idle as the abrasive joker who richly deserves crucifixion but somehow escapes it. And Idle again as the chummy condemned man who cheers up his nailed friends with a little tune.

In the Gospel of Gibson, religion is supposed to be a better consolation for the misfortunes of life than humor. Still, remember the crew of the HMS Sheffield were singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" when their ship went down during the Falklands War.


Life of Brian (Unrated; 94 min.), directed by Terry Jones, written by the members of Monty Python, photographed by Peter Biziou and starring Monty Python, opens Friday.


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From the May 19-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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