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After 25 years, 'Life of Brian' silliness still stings

"No God and no religion can survive ridicule," wrote Mark Twain, but for once the sage of Hannibal was wrong. How else could the church and decades of pompous Hollywood religious epics survive the thwacking given them in 1979 by "Monty Python's Life of Brian"? Here we are 25 years later, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is the seventh all-time biggest grosser in every sense of the word, and satire has become a timid pinprick in the face of 21st-century spiritual zeal. "Brian" wouldn't stand a chance of being made in 2004, not with its unhealed blind man, cross-dressing holy "virgin," and -- capper of all cappers -- musical crucifixion scene.

All the more reason to rerelease it, then.

If you've never seen the greatest work of religious skepticism ever put on the screen -- and, no, I'm not kidding -- hie thee and your minions to the Kendall Square, where a silver-anniversary run of "Life of Brian" is playing for God only knows how long. At its Swiftian best, the film suggests that the human urge to follow self-proclaimed messiahs is the trait that links us most closely to the lemming. At its worst, it's just ruthlessly silly.

"Life of Brian" isn't about Jesus, of course, but Brian Cohen (the late Graham Chapman), the nice Jewish boy born next door to the famous manger. Before they realize their mistake, the three wise men deliver their offerings to the infant Brian and his nonplussed mum, Mandy (director Terry Jones, in full Python-harridan drag), who suggests they leave the myrrh at home the next time they pop in.

Cut to three decades later, and Brian and Mum are at the back of the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount ("I think he said, `Blessed are the cheesemakers'?"). That's all we see of the Lamb of God; true to its title, "Life of Brian" pads about as its naive hero falls in with the People's Front of Judea, is smitten with strident activist Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), gets mistaken for a messiah precisely because he doesn't have any answers, and ends up on the cross while that annoyingly chipper fellow forever played by Eric Idle sings "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

As in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," civilization is what happens between endless bouts of bickering: For every step forward, mankind takes eight steps back. Parts of "Life of Brian" show their age -- the political splinter-group comedy feels very late-'70s, while the casual nudity is a jolt in these conservative times -- but the basic calculus still stings: How can people expect to agree on matters of faith when they can't agree on lunch?

The classic Python burlesques hold up as well: a centurion (John Cleese) giving Brian a Latin grammar graffiti lesson (truly painful if you've ever been forced to decline a noun); the stoning sequence, featuring Python men dressed as women dressed as men and rocks flying at anyone foolish enough to say "Jehovah"; all the scenes involving Michael Palin as an airily lisping Pontius Pilate ("Stwike him woughly"); Palin again as a boring messiah-wannabe in the Alley of Prophets, muttering, "At that time, a friend shall lose his friend's hammer, and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about 8 o'clock . . ."

Grand mockery, all of it, but the scene that goes in the Movie Metaphysics highlight reel is when the reluctant Brian finally addresses his followers. "You don't need to follow me!," he pleads in exasperation. "You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all different!"

The crowd responds, "Yes! We're all different!"

And one tiny voice pipes up, "I'm not."

You couldn't monkeywrench group-think better if you tried.

Ty Burr can be reached at

Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Directed by: Terry Jones
Written by and starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, Michael Palin
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 94 minutes
Rated: R
(adult language, nudity, blasphemy)

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