Program Length: 93 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English 5.1
Subtitles: English, Portuguese (commentary tracks have Portuguese subtitles)
At the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, Stephen Colbert first skewered President George W. Bush. Then he took satirical aim at the Washington press corps:
“Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!”
The White House correspondents were not amused. In their coverage of the event, they mostly either ignored Colbert’s appearance or dismissed him as “unfunny.” That only seemed to prove Colbert’s point about how out of touch the press is, because over the next 48 hours his performance was viewed 2.7 million times on YouTube.
I mention Colbert not to make a political point, but to make the point that powerful people seem to have difficulty appreciating satire, particularly when it is at their expense. This brings us to Monty Python’s Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition, the latest DVD incarnation of the controversial 1979 film. People who had not even seen the film were convinced that it was a blasphemous mockery of Jesus Christ. What the protesters did not realize is that it was they who were being mocked.
In fact, Jesus appears only once in the film, giving the Sermon on the Mount in an early scene. He is mentioned by name only once, by an ex-leper (Michael Palin) who ruefully complains that the “do-gooder” Jesus had cost him his only means of support (begging) by healing him. The central character is Brian of Nazareth (Graham Chapman), born on Christmas Day but otherwise having no resemblance to Jesus. In the year 33 A.D., Brian decides to join a rebel organization which wants to expel the Romans from Judea. One day, while fleeing Roman centurions, Brian hides from them by pretending to be a street corner messiah. As he preaches to a skeptical audience, Brian inadvertently convinces them that he is the long-awaited messiah. The more Brian tries to disabuse of them of that notion, the more convinced they are that it is true.
At this point it becomes clear that the Pythons are making fun of religion, not Jesus. As the enthusiastic crowd chases Brian, it takes only a few minutes for the first schism to erupt. When Brian loses one of his shoes, his followers immediately begin to argue about the meaning of this “sign” and break off into separate groups. In this the Pythons are following the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift, whose characters argue about whether the correct way to crack an egg is on the big end or the little end.
The Pythons – Chapman, Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones – all play multiple roles, to hilarious effect. There are numerous humorous sub-plots, with lots of jokes revolving around a lisping Pontius Pilate (Palin) and his friendship with the centurion Biggus Dickus (Chapman). The final scene, punctuated with a brilliant song written by Eric Idle, is an iconic moment in British comedy.
As happens so often, the protests against Life of Brian only served to provide publicity for the film. Although the film was in fact banned in some localities in Great Britain, fans simply flocked to the nearest town where it was playing.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation is sharp and colorful. My only complaint is that shadow detail is somewhat lacking in dark scenes. There is noticeable film grain in some scenes. Flesh tones are accurate and colors are stable. The bright red in Pilate’s robes is displayed without any bleeding.
Set designer Terry Gilliam makes excellent use of the locations in Tunisia, which are nicely rendered.
There have been previous DVD editions of this film, notably a Criterion release in 1999. I do not have the previous releases and therefore cannot do a direct comparison, but this one looks very good.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is the only choice here, and it sounds fine. The film’s nonsensical theme song, powerfully sung over the opening credits by Sonia Jones, comes across clearly and with excellent separation. The surround channels do not have a great deal to do, but they provide some satisfying ambient effects.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition is packed with special features, some of which are on the Criterion release.
There are two commentary tracks, one featuring Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Eric Idle, the other featuring John Cleese and Michael Palin. Both commentaries provide much insight into how the film was conceived and created and how the members of the troupe interact. I presume that these are the same commentaries which appear on the Criterion DVD. Gilliam and Jones co-directed the Pythons' prior feature, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, and it was not a happy experience. It was decided the Life of Brian would be directed by Jones and that Gilliam would do the animation and be in charge of set design.
Also included are four original radio spots recorded by the mothers of Cleese, Idle and Gilliam, as well as Michael Palin’s dentist! There are five deleted scenes, four of which were cut because they really do not work very well. The fifth deleted scene, “Otto,” probably was more controversial than anything else in the film. The deleted scenes are in fairly ragged condition.
The Criterion release apparently includes a documentary which was filmed during the shooting in Tunisia. “The Immaculate Edition” includes a new, hour-long documentary called “The Story of Brian” which covers the making of the film and the ensuing protests. A high point is excerpts from a British television show in which Cleese and Palin famously (and successfully) debate the film with Bishop Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge.
A revealing new feature is a 110-minute recording of an early reading of the film’s original screenplay, accompanied by Terry Gilliam’s storyboards for each scene.
The two discs come in a single keepcase inside a cardboard sleeve. The cardboard sleeve has a gatefold opening which depicts most of the characters that appear in the film.
The Final Analysis
I am unable to make a direct comparison with the prior DVD releases of Life of Brian, but I suspect that the new extras alone will make this appealing to fans of the film. With street prices as low as $17, it is also a bargain.
And remember: Blessed are the Cheesemakers!
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD10A Blu-ray Player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: January 29, 2008