Mar 11, 2016

Alternative to What: "Life of Brian" (1979)

Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

The Life of Brian (1979)
- Alternative To -
The Young Messiah (2016)

This movie season usually brings out a certain religious bent for audiences to consume. With Risen recently released, The Young Messiah joins the club with an even more intricate look into the life of the Jesus Christ character. If you know the bible, you're likely almost too familiar with the story, so to see it reenacted yet again is probably going to bore you to tears. In all honesty, the bible has plenty of good stories worthy of adaptations. Few of them are done right or in an inventive way (the only one that comes to mind is Noah). However, there's also the choice to explore religion in a compelling manner, and one that doesn't immediately fall back onto idol worship, as what seems to be the central conflict of these many films. No, I'm not going to recommend a direct biblical adaptation like The Passion of the Christ. It would feel strange to push a religious agenda on a column meant to recommend random alternatives. So instead, I am going with a funnier, livelier film about religion called The Life of Brian.
For many, Monty Python are among the premiere comedy troupes from the past century. From their TV sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus to their stage show Spamalot!, they have done wonders to spread a mythos of being cerebral while being funny. Between their many films, the one that is likely to get a big rise if The Life of Brian. While Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the funnier film and Meaning of Life is the more offensive, The Life of Brian is arguably the only true film of theirs to tell a cohesive story with a three act structure. It is also one that likely is going to hit some people the wrong way. It is after all about a man mistaken as the messiah (Jesus), and gets a loyal group of followers that end up taking things a little too far. Depending on your views, even Monty Python took things a little too far with the film.
One of the noteworthy issues with the film is that audiences mistook it for blaspheming Jesus. It is true that it suggests that the messiah Brian isn't him, but at no point is there ever a sense that Jesus is the butt of a joke. During various interviews, the group made sure to note that Jesus is a dull figure to make fun of and that most of the humor comes from the worshipers mistaking various things, such as a gourd, for something far more deep and powerful. Yes, there's symbolism that may get people riled up, but the final product ends up being about how worshipers aren't always the smartest people in the world.

What is left is a film that mixes the familiar references with a period piece comedy that has all of the highs and lows of an average Monty Python routine. When enjoyed solely for comedy, the film is effective and manages to provoke as well. Considering that the group has formed a cult like status around themselves, there's plenty to enjoy out of these films. The closing number "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" has become its own sensation and was even played at the Olympics in 2012. No matter what, there's plenty to like that doesn't even involve religion in the film, as the group adds a healthy dose of absurdity and smarts to the mix in was that will make you feel smart. 
It is difficult to suggest seeing this over The Young Messiah largely because it would feel like pushing agenda. However, I would like to recommend this movie more as pure entertainment. It just happens to share a few convincing parallels that show a different side of religion. It may be satirical and at times far more crass than any other film with Jesus association, but it still manages to push boundaries with inventive and exciting cinema. It brings a lot of fun historical humor to, if that's your thing. While I'd argue that their other films have far more to offer in the ways of jokes, this is evidence that maybe they should have been making more films like this over the years.

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