After my housemate expressed interest in futuristic dystopian movies, I immediately prescribed Brazil, one of my absolute favourite movies. I have a lot to say about it. Remaining Terry Gilliam’s greatest and best-known work, it deals with bureaucracy, terrorism, insurgency, and love on a grand scale. Somewhere in the 20th century, a typo leads to an arrest warrant for Archibald Buttle, shoe repair operative, to be issued instead of one for Harry Tuttle, heating engineer. This one incident sparks a chain of events escalating in one man’s rebellion against England’s totalitarian bureaucratic government. In a role written just for him the incomparable Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, an unmotivated but highly capable employee of the Bureau of Records, who dreams of rescuing a beautiful blonde (Kim Greist) from robotic captors while he toils away at his thankless job.
By following Sam around, Gilliam establishes a detailed and technologically complex satirical world, inundated with myriad official forms, plastic surgery, government surveillance, and sporadic terrorist bombings. Sam must reimburse the family for Buttle’s wrongful arrest, and while visiting their apartment he glimpses the girl from his dreams, Jill Layton, and works desperately to find her again. He accepts a promotion engineered by his socially active and conniving mother (Katherine Helmond) so that he can access Jill’s file with the help of upper-level interrogator and old school chum Jack Lint (Michael Palin), but she shows up at his office building in an attempt to locate her neighbor Mr Buttle. Under the pretense of arresting her as a suspected terrorist, Sam persuades her to drive away in her awesome tank-like delivery truck and tries to convince her he’s trustworthy. She cautiously lets him hang out while she runs a mission, and eventually grows to trust him.
Sam’s apartment is unlivable due to a takeover by government repairmen (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor) after he’d secretly allowed rogue heating engineer Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) to fix his air conditioning. Therefore he hides Jill in his mother’s apartment (she’s on holiday with her plastic surgeon) while he hacks into a high-level office computer to delete Jill from the system. However, the inner workings of the government, while convoluted by forms and middle men, are nevertheless highly effective at getting wanted men and women, and Sam and Jill’s rebellious bliss can’t last long.
God, I love this movie. It’s complex and often nonsensical and hilarious and frightening and surreal and so many other things all at once. Of course my first point of ardor is its visuals: epically scaled, brushed with deep greys and foggy lighting. The sets are richly detailed, filled with retro-futuristic gadgetry, interwoven ducts, and office supplies. Sam’s dream sequences range from his winged form dipping in and out of bright clouds to fighting a towering metal samurai in a dark alley. The final twenty minutes delve into a surreal and harrowing state of mind that has remained one of my favourite sequences ever filmed. Helping the visuals along is the fantastic score by Michael Kamen, based around Ary Barroso’s “Aquarela do Brasil“.
The characters and performances are extraordinary. Naturally Jonathan Pryce is perfect as Sam, earnest, unassuming, funny, and a little schlumpy: an endearing and unlikely romantic hero. Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, and Katherine Helmond get less screen time but are still incredibly memorable. Co-writer Charles McKeown is hilarious as Sam’s paranoid office neighbor Harvey Lime, while Ian Holm is adorable as his inept boss Mr Kurtzmann. Every character stands out in some way- not even the smallest part fades into the background (Sheila Reid, in her only speaking scene, screaming “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HIS BODY?” is one of the most affecting parts of the film). You can easily see the care writers Gilliam, McKeown, and Tom Stoppard placed in writing these roles; this is a satire, but that doesn’t make its characters any less rounded or significant.
The story is admittedly complicated and confusing, and sometimes it seems like Gilliam assumed a certain amount of knowledge in his audience impossibly gained prior to viewing. However, I’ve found that the more I watch it, the more I understand or appreciate, so really it’s an advantage. There are little lines or scenes that seem throwaway but turn out to be important later, and you only realize after the third or fourth viewing. For me, one of the marks of a great movie is its re-watchability factor.
Brazil has everything I could want in a dystopian comedy/drama set in England (yes, it is inspired by 1984, but really so much better). I love pretty much everything about it, and my love for it grows each time I watch it. Now, be warned there are multiple versions of the movie, but I have only seen the Director’s Cut, aka the correct version. Other cuts of it have a happier ending or just a shorter running time (the director’s cut is 142 min), but after the debacle they put Gilliam through I wouldn’t count them at all. Film for the Soul has been doing a focus on Brazil, and has a lot of the historical background that I don’t feel like writing about (you have suffered through my words enough on this day) and some detailed interpretation. It’s really interesting, so check it out!