It's rude, crude and utterly hilarious, unmistakably British in its comic sensibility. While I personally prefer the Python philosophy in The Meaning of Life, many see Life of Brian as the Pythons' cinematic masterpiece. The Pythons themselves call it as a "timeless epic that's only 93 minutes long." Good enough.
The life of Brian (Graham Chapman) brings him into contact with the actual Messiah at the Sermon on the Mount, but so far back that the crowd is struggling to hear. "Blessed are the cheese makers?" "The Greek shall inherit the earth?" Brian and his mother give up and attend a nice stoning instead.
Young Brian, for love of the maiden Judith, falls in with a group of talky terrorists. He's sent to paint "Romans go home!" on the walls of Pilate's palace, gets captured in a botched kidnapping scheme, escapes and is somehow mistaken for the Messiah, and - spoiler alert - winds up with a whole bunch of folks in the big crucifixion scene at the end, complete with a sunny music-hall tune and a nailed-to-your-crosses dance number. Really.
Obviously, the plot is not the point. Life of Brian is actually nicely researched film that chronicles a dirty, miserable, oppressive time when people were ready to worship a shoe if they thought it would get them a better deal in the afterlife. It sends up the ponderous Biblical epics of the 1950s and '60s, along with the whole of Judeo-Christian history. It will make you laugh out loud and possibly take up Buddhism.
The Cast of 'Life of Brian'
Michael Palin is brilliant as a cured leper who's upset that he's lost his living as a beggar; as a kind-hearted Roman guard guiding people to their crucifixions like a solicitous flight attendant; and even better as Pontius Pilate with a speech defect, ordering that a prisoner be spared to please the crowd. "Welease Woderwick!" (No, he didn't even try to say "Barabbas.") Chapman gets a second role as Pilate's lisping Roman friend, Biggus Dickus.
John Cleese is stupendously funny as bureaucratic terrorist Reg, doggedly following Robert's Rules of Order, and as the bullying Centurion who corrects the Latin grammar in Brian's palace-wall graffiti. Eric Idle plays his usual array of smart-alecks and gets the big song at the end (which he wrote). However, one of Idle's characters, a Hitler-esque suicide squad leader, was cut from the film (see "backstory" below).
Terry Gilliam, the troupe's only American-born member and the source of its bizarrely entertaining animation, does a funny turn as a deaf jailer. Also the art director, he created the spectacular look of the film and its evocation of a crowded little desert town in a backwater of the Roman Empire, 33 A.D.
Idle and producer John Goldstone went to the United States to try and find replacement funding, but the controversy spooked all the usual players. Finally, Idle went to his friend George Harrison (yes, that George Harrison), who agreed to fund the film.
It's hard to think of any Beatle having financial worries, but in a clip from the DVD extras, Harrison says he mortgaged his Hollywood house and his office to come up with the princely sum of $4 million. The resulting new production company, Handmade Films, went on to do several successful movies after Life of Brian.
The film opened first in the U.S., where controversy and protests only increased demand. Some states actually banned it, fanning the flames. Similar protests in Britain failed to sway the U. K. censors, who passed it uncut and deemed it appropriate for anyone aged 14 and up.
It was the Pythons themselves who made the creative decision to cut the Hitler-like character, who was arguing with Brian for racial purity among the Jews, and whose helmet bore Gilliam's squirm-inducing design of a yellow Star of David twisted into something like a swastika. Good call, guys.