The American Society of Cinematographers

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King of Ping Pong
DVD Playback
Two-Lane Blacktop
Midnight Express
Life of Brian
ASC Close-Up
Monty Pythons Life of Brian (1979)

The Immaculate Edition
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $24.99

The problem of mistaken identity is often mined for comedy, but only one comedy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, has intertwined the problem with the story of Jesus Christ. That no one else has tried something similar is a testament to Monty Python’s audacity, or their brilliance, or perhaps both. Arguably the high-water mark of the boys’ singular body of work, Life of Brian is a tenacious critique of conformity clad in the flowing robes (and hairdos) of a Biblical epic.

Shot by Peter Biziou, BSC (The Truman Show, Mississippi Burning), who worked behind the scenes with two Pythons, director Terry Jones and production designer Terry Gilliam, Life of Brian charts the short, mostly happy life of Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), who is born in a manger in Bethlehem on a significant date to a woman (Terry Jones) who has not been a virgin for some time, and is crucified 30-odd years later for participating in an attempt to kidnap Pontius Pilate’s (Michael Palin) wife — an act he undertakes mainly to impress a girl. Brian’s life runs parallel to that of Jesus, who is glimpsed in the film just once, as he delivers the Beatitudes, and this eventually proves to be bad timing for Brian; Judea is in the grip of Messiah fever, and through a series of coincidences, Brian is mistaken for the Son of God and attracts a throng of followers, rendering his attempts to hide from the Romans futile. 

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment recently released a two-disc “Immaculate Edition” of Life of Brian that boasts a new high-definition transfer of the picture but borrows most of the supplements that appeared on The Criterion Collection’s excellent 1999 DVD. Compared side-by-side with Criterion’s director-approved transfer, this new hi-def transfer has an almost distracting level of color saturation, exhibiting ruddy flesh tones and extremely blue skies. The image is clean overall, and the occasional grain appears consistent with the look of the prints struck for the film’s theatrical re-release in 2004 (an event cleverly timed to coincide with, and wordlessly comment on, the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ).

The Criterion supplements that make encore appearances in Sony’s package are two entertaining audio commentary tracks, one by Jones, Gilliam and Eric Idle (who were recorded separately), the other by Palin and John Cleese (also recorded separately); a set of four original radio spots for the film; and a handful of deleted scenes. Inexplicably missing from this package is the film’s theatrical trailer, which was included on the Criterion edition.

Sony’s package presents two other supplements, each about an hour long: a 1977 audio recording of the Pythons doing a read-through of the script that is accompanied by some of Jones’ original storyboards; and a newly produced documentary featurette, “The Story of Brian,” in which all five surviving Pythons and others recall the making of the film (which marked the birth of George Harrison’s Handmade Films) and the controversy that surrounded its release. The documentary includes footage of various Pythons defending the film on English and American TV shows. (The movie was deemed blasphemous by England’s Festival of Light, a conservative group determined to “clean up” British culture, and was banned in some areas of England. In the States, it was criticized by Jewish, Catholic and Protestant authorities, and some theaters that showed it were picketed.)

Life of Brian suggests that Jesus set the bar rather high for Capricorns everywhere, and some would say Monty Python did the same for artists with this film. Satirizing separatism and extremism by situating a comedy squarely in the Middle East during Jesus’ time is no task for the tentative. In an interview on this disc, Gilliam remarks, “You can get laughs any number of ways, but to get laughs at an intelligent level about an important subject — that’s good.” Asked to speculate about whether Life of Brian would be made today, Jones pauses and then responds, “It ought to be.”

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