An everyman of an oppressively bureaucratic future becomes entangled in a conspiracy after a clerical error.
Before I get started, let me say that I have been dreading writing this review.
‘Why?’ You ask. ‘Brazil is a great movie!’
Indeed, Brazil is a great movie. It is my favorite Gilliam film, and Gilliam is easily one of my favorite directors. For the longest time, Brazil sat comfortably in my Top Five Movies list, but only recently it was bumped from its position (replaced by Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”). This movie is still in my top ten films. It has meant so much to me for so long, that I doubt it will ever leave my top ten. So, I state again: I’ve been dreading writing this review. Why? Because I know no matter what I say about this movie, it will never be enough to convey my love for it. I could write an article just on the production design of this film, another article on the layered symbolism of Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce, “Glengarry Glen Ross”) dreams, another article on the bleakness of the ending, and probably a dozen articles about how this movie compares to George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984.
I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll do my best to convey to you, dear reader, what it is “Brazil” means to a huge fan, and why I think every cinephile, regardless of what genres they prefer, should see this film.
“This is your receipt for your husband, and this is my receipt for your receipt.”
Brazil is set in an alternate timeline/distant future where mindless bureaucracy bogs down society and terror attacks are so prevalent the whole world has become numb to them. After a clerical error mislabels an innocent man named ‘Buttle’ a terrorist, a depressed government worker named Sam Lowry (Pryce) is sent to clean up the mess. When Lowry arrives at Buttle’s apartment building, he comes in contact with Jill Layton (Kim Greist, “Manhunter”), a woman whom he’s been having dreams about. Meanwhile, Harry Tuttle (Robert Deniro, “Taxi Driver”), a renegade repairman, contacts Lowry, while the government begins to suspect that Lowry himself might be behind the terrorist attacks.
So I suppose first and foremost: this movie is sort of a Gilliam-ized version of George Orwell’s 1984, a book which has, more or less, has been labeled the epitome of dystopian fiction (in my opinion it’s a tossup between 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World- both are great, but they’re very different). As I sat down to write this review, I found a bit of trivia on IMDb that said Gilliam himself had admitted that “Brazil” was in part inspired by 1984, but Gilliam had not, in fact, ever read the book. I’m sure if you haven’t read the book, much like Gilliam, you probably are at least aware of what the story is about.
Orwell’s 1984 tells the story of cold, calculated world where the world is seemingly perfect, but there are little hints that there is something wrong beneath the surface. In 1984, the protagonist is named Winston Smith, and he is a middle-aged government worker that specializes in ‘doublethink’ and ‘doublespeak’, government coined-phrases that were invented to describe the rewriting of history so that it seems the country in which Smith lives, has always been on the right side of history. In Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” Sam Lowry’s character is a government worker responsible for the processing of all sorts of various goings on (his actual job title is kept pretty vague, we just know he’s a government worker, and from the way his mother pesters him about a promotion, we can deduce that he holds a low to moderate rank). In both worlds, nothing seems to really get done because everything is bogged down by so much paperwork and needless proceedings.
There are honestly dozens of ways that the two stories correlate, from the romantic elements (Sam Lowry’s relationship with Jill Layton becomes Lowry’s driving force to break from the bureaucracy, just like Winston’s relationship with Julia becomes his driving force to revolt against the ministry), to the growing coldness of humanity (Brazil shows this in the indifference to terrorist attacks, while 1984 shows this in the governments belief that sex should only be used for reproduction), to the bleak yet similar endings (which I won’t spoil). But the thing I love about Gilliam is that he makes this story uniquely his own, in only the way Gilliam can do it.
Gilliam’s directing style is, to say the least, a little bit bonkers. While I wont say all of his films are great, all of his films have at least a few things that I can point to and say, “I like the way he did that.” His films can be absolutely ridiculous (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, “Time Bandits”, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”), they can be sentimental and thought provoking (“The Fisher King”), they can be thrilling (“Twelve Monkeys”), or they can tell stories I believe only Gilliam could tell (“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”). Gilliam, in my opinion, is truly a cinematic treasure, and his genre films have opened the doors for and inspired a whole new generation of fantasy filmmakers. Brazil is one of Gilliam’s films where I believe his talents are on full display; the movie is equal parts thought provoking, satirical, and compelling, and no, I don’t think this film could’ve been made by anyone else.
I think the thing Gilliam does the best in this film is balancing the craziness with the message he’s trying to tell. The world that Gilliam crafts is fantastical, yet we never loose ourselves in the bizarre goings on of the world. On the TMM podcast, we’ve often talked about how in good films, setting becomes just as big of a character as the protagonists, and “Brazil” accomplishes that perfectly. The first time we meet Lowry, as he’s getting ready for work in the morning, we watch as all of the mechanics around him, which are meant to make his life easier, end up malfunctioning and doing nothing to help him in the long run. That introductory scene sets the tone for the whole world by showing the viewer how futuristic and new everything is, but at the same time, showing how horribly these machines function. The world is further fleshed out by Lowry’s relationship with his mother, Mrs. Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond, “Time Bandits”), whom is obsessed with getting multiple plastic surgeries from a quack doctor (Jim Broadbent, “Life is Sweet”), and keeping up with the latest fashion trends (like wearing shoes on one’s head). Gilliam seems to love to point out the ridiculousness of these passing trends by making everything overblown and silly, juxtaposed by how serious the actors treat the world.
Another thing I love about this film is how scarily accurate some of the predictions about the coldness of society have turned out to be. There is one scene in particular where Lowry has dinner with his mother, and, upon sitting down at the restaurant a bomb goes off, killing dozens of patrons on the other side of the building. Not to be deterred from their meal, Sam, his mother, and his mother’s guests, talk to their waiter and ask to order, whilst people in the background wail and moan in pain. The scene is darkly comedic, but it also points at the characters’ indifference to the suffering of others around us. How many times today how we heard about terrorist attacks in different parts of the world, and simply thought, “That’s absolutely terrible,” and gone about our day? I know I’m guilty of it. We all are. Are any of us any different than Sam and his mother, going about our daily lives while people wail in agony behind us?
While Gilliam is absolutely trying to make a point with this film, I actually find it to be one of his more entertaining films as well. The movie never feels like I’m getting a kind of message crammed down my throat, Gilliam is just telling a story. If you’re sick of politics, don’t worry; there’s enough escapist fun in this film for viewers to enjoy this on multiple levels.
“Brazil” is a brilliant film. I personally would argue it’s Gilliam’s best, but he has so many other great films that I could understand any number of his films being toted as the director’s magnum opus. Brazil is a hard film to describe, and while the surface-level story is easy to grasp, the elaborate intricacies of the symbolism and the depth of the world building, make it easy to come back to this film multiple times and catch something new every time.
I absolutely recommend “Brazil.”
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