Color, 1979, 94 mins.

Directed by Terry Jones

Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam / Produced by John Goldstone / Music by Geoffrey Burgon / Cinematography by Peter Biziou

Format: DVD - Criterion (MSRP $39.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 2.0

One of the first major films to send the modern American religious right into fits, Monty Python's Life of Brian marked the British comedy troupe's follow up to their spectacular Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While Holy Grail was shot for virtually nothing out in the middle of the woods (a much better lesson in filmic economy than Blair Witch!), their satire on religious convention uses a much broader canvas. Mass crowd scenes, sweeping desert landscapes, and inventive set design provide a constantly surprising arena for this comedic circus, which remains their only attempt to use a completely linear, sequential narrative for a full length movie. And it's also very, very funny, too.

Brian, a baby born on the same night as Jesus Christ, grows up in the same area and finds his life running a comically parallel course. In adulthood (as Graham Chapman), he experiences a number of mishaps ranging from encounters with the Romans to aliens to a troupe of followers who believe him to be the true Messiah. Less an attack on the Bible itself than a Swiftian portrayal of people who follow religion blindly, the film has been surprisingly influential over the years, most recently in Kevin Smith's less impressive Dogma. Though it lacks the outrageous setpieces of the Pythons' more famous work (no killer bunnies here, folks), Brian focuses more on the characters and verbal wit with an occasinoal dash of slapstick thrown in. There are highlights, to be sure, particularly the riotous stoning sequence ("Jehovah!") and the funniest nude scene in movie history, but these all serve to push the story forward rather than exist in their own vacuums. It's useless to try to determine which Python film is the best; this one, Holy Grail, and Meaning of Life are really so different that each can be considered a masterpiece in its own right. Brian earns its place thanks to the vivid historical setting (far more convincing than most serious biblical epics, oddly enough) and the fierce, enthusiastic conviction it displays for its unorthodox central concept.

Filmed hard matted at 1.85:1, Life of Brian really must be experienced in a theater or letterboxed for the full effect. Criterion first issued a widescreen special edition on laserdisc with a bounty of extras which have been duplicated on the DVD. Anchor Bay's DVD featured only the film and the trailer, so Criterion sweetened the deal even more by making a fresh, anamorphically enhanced transfer. Thankfully their trouble was well worth the effort, as Brian has never looked better. Rich, undiluted golds and browns flood the screen, and the grain which has plagued every past version looks far less noticeable here. However, Terry Gilliam's eye-popping credits are still illegiible and most likely will be anywhere except on the big screen. The early Dolby Stereo soundtrack has been left in its original theatrical mix and sounds just fine. Extras include commentary from Terry Jones, who offers his usual rapier-sharp observations about the film and religious humor in general, along with Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle, who chip in but remain more in the background for obvious reasons. Co-writer John Cleese and Michael Palin appear on a separate commentary track, which is a little jauntier and tends to wander off in some fairly bizarre directions. Other goodies include radio spots and a handful of deleted scenes (one of which absolutely should have been left in the film). The theatrical trailer and radio spot round out the package along with The Pythons, a sprawling 50 minute documentary covering the location shooting of the film. Here you can see the boys cutting up behind the camera and getting into character, oblivious of the religious furor they were about to stir up.

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