Once scandalous - once, even, banned outright in Aberystwyth - 1979's Monty Python's Life of Brian returns to a multiplex near you this Easter weekend, carrying its newish 12A certificate. That might suggest the film has somehow been tamed by time. In fact, confirming its status as among the great screen comedies, it's all still thrillingly alive; even its trickier, more dated elements enter into lively conversation with the concerns and hang-ups of our present moment. Much of this was built in from the off. Its prime movers were smart-arsed Oxbridge mischief makers who by this point knew full well how to make an audience snort and titter, to grab and goose our attention, but who also now wanted to make us think, and possibly give us something to argue about as we filed towards the car park. Watching Life of Brian in 2023, you become aware of five distinct comic sensibilities (six, if you include Gilliam, whose opening credits offer their own take on the haphazard way stories are constructed) arguing among themselves. Some of its jokes are, in satirical terms, universal; others betray a particular ideological leaning or bias. (Brian, of course, is betrayed both by the Roman establishment and the revolutionary Left, the splitters.) It invites interpretation as at once countercultural and iron-willed, sending on an unsmiling Colonel of a joke (or just Cleese) whenever matters get too silly. All the Pythons have at some point to take a backseat, watching as their handiwork gets hijacked by whoever was responsible for that wholly gratuitous Star Wars nod everybody forgets; someone scribbles in an Antonioni joke in the closing seconds. Rather than have the last word on the Bible, as some insisted, the movie achieved something more lasting: it set an agenda for the fractious debate that followed.
Traces of a very boysy, very Seventies strain of thinking remain. It's not blasphemous, as the era's angrier faces alleged: this script takes care to set up Brian's story in parallel to whatever is going on offscreen with JC. But there are places where the prevailing irreverence rubs up against a certain insensitivity. Having an actual woman in the writers' tent (rather than men gamely dragging up as women) might have taken the edge off the throwaway invocations of rape; the speech impediment business feels overdone; and there's an early running joke - about the genesis of Brian's nose - that I'm still unsure about, partly because I can't quite untangle its thinking. Is it funny? Antisemitic? Subtler than that, for better or worse? (A misogynist crack at Brian's mother?) Equally, there are superb jokes that only this rowdy mob could have come up with. The "Romans Go Home" scene, with its glorious reveal of an entire fort turned into a blackboard, is exactly what you take away from private schooling, along with years of emotional repression. The crucifixion itself hinges upon Eric Idle's cheerily mollifying presence, singlehandedly reshaping a bummer ending into a payoff for the ages. They were lucky, heading into movies just as comedies begat hits and movies in turn spent money on comedy: it got them non-British (Tunisian) skies, detailed sets and the extras to fill them, scale for that final sequence. But they were solely responsible for the film's bustling density of jokes. If after years of culture-war piffle, you feel disinclined to debate them at length, you could instead pick and choose your favourite performer. Chapman's frazzled reticence is just right for Brian, but Palin underlines his claim to being this group's McCartney, able to play anything: aggressive Twerp on the Mount, long-time prisoner, befuddled philosopher, caring-sharing Roman officer, and most memorably of all, the immortal Pontius Pilate, defending the good name of his old friend Biggus Dickus. Something for everyone, even today.
Monty Python's Life of Brian returns to selected cinemas from today; it is also available to stream via Netflix, and on DVD/Blu-Ray through Sony Pictures.