Terry Gilliam has to fight each time he makes a movie. You could write volumes about the director’s struggles in getting his films on the screen. His reputation reaches mythic proportions of being difficult, demanding, and maybe even a little crazy. I see Gilliam as a mix between the sadistic music teacher in Whiplash, and the titular character from his own film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He’s an intense perfectionist who delights in telling the tallest of tales. Somewhere within him is a little bit of Sam Lowry, Gilliam’s protagonist in his brilliant and singular film Brazil. Lowry starts the film as just a dreamer, but by the end he’s willing to sacrifice his own best interests to pursue his obsessions with reckless abandon.
The setting is “somewhere in the 20th century,” and although it lacks real world developments like the internet, the world of Brazil feels very familiar. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low level paper pusher in the totalitarian government’s Ministry of Information. Sam is stuck at the bottom and he likes it that way. Instead of using his time to climb the bureaucratic ladder, he’d rather escape into his dreams, where he saves a mysterious damsel in distress. In an absurdist twist that would make Kafka proud, a fly is ruthlessly killed by a technician one day at the Ministry of Information, and when it falls into the machine that spits out wanted suspects, a typo occurs. The name “Buttle” pops out instead of “Tuttle”, but instead of being responsible for unpaid parking tickets that aren’t his or his house being seized, Mr. Buttle is rounded up as a potential terrorist and interrogated in a most enhanced way. Sam is thrust into the mess when Buttle’s upstairs neighbor, Jill (Kim Greist) takes an interest in his case. Sam spots her at his office, and becomes obsessed with her cause because she bears a striking resemblance to the literal woman of his dreams.
Besides the government using fear created by terrorists as a pretext for implementing a complete surveillance state, Brazil nails a lot about our world in a satirical way using pitch-black humor. The omnipresent duct work in every building symbolizes our society’s complete dependence on technology. All the roads are profusely lined with billboard ads, blocking out the land that’s been decimated by resource extraction. The world Gilliam creates is a sort of dystopia by way of automated utopia run amok. When the technology breaks down, the proper forms must be submitted in just the right order to get any results. In a hilarious turn, Sam uses this rigid adherence to protocol to stop a couple of nefarious duct technicians in their tracks. When he asks for a required form before he’ll allow admission to his apartment, one of the techs has a seizure, endlessly repeating the number of the requested form.
Gilliam and co-screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown deftly maneuver between big laughs and tragic drama with the results of the glitch that caused Mr. Buttle to be apprehended by the state. It begins with the darkly hilarious scene in which Buttle is abducted. As he's being fitted with a straight jacket and hood, a bureaucrat appears with paperwork for his wife to sign. The bureaucrat tells her to press harder with the pen, for the sake of the carbon copy, and gives her a receipt for her husband. He then shows her another piece of paper, telling her, “This is my receipt for your receipt.” Later, Sam brings a refund check to Mrs. Buttle, and he’s confronted by the malicious aspects of the system he is complicit in supporting. The state issues the check to compensate the widow for her husband’s death by heart attack during his interrogation. The anguish displayed in the scene by actress Sheila Reid is devastating. She simply wants to know what’s happened to her husband, but gets no answers from the rattled Sam.
Anyone who has ever felt trapped by the characteristics our society shares with the world of Brazil can immediately identify with Sam Lowry. He feels stifled creatively and emotionally by a system that wants to rob him of his individuality. If you’ve ever read an interview focusing on Terry Gilliam, it quickly becomes obvious this is how the director sees himself. Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Sam is a perfect balance of vulnerability, naïveté, and nervous energy. The anxious exchanges Sam has with his mother – played by the hilarious Katherine Helmond – encapsulate his character perfectly. Each time she chides her son about not being ambitious enough in his career, Pryce adopts the look of a sullen little boy. At the end of the film, in a hallucination/dream sequence, things turn Oedipal in a surreal twist that only dreams and movies can achieve.
The dreams in this movie, as well as the visuals in all the other scenes, are inventive and striking. Sam’s fantasy battles with a gigantic samurai warrior are as fully realized as the drab 1950s inspired Orwellian society he can’t escape. The art, makeup, and effects departments collaborated to bring Gilliam’s unique vision to life. One scene involving Sam’s mother’s endless search for the fountain of youth gives a queasy new meaning to the phrase “plastic surgery.”
Like almost all of Gilliam’s other films, Brazil traveled a torturous road to reach audiences when it was released thirty years ago. Universal, the studio that distributed Brazil in America, forced multiple versions of the film on the director. For one version, they hired an editor to excise almost half the material, and to tack on a happy ending. Film critic Jack Mathews even chronicled the fight in his book, The Battle of Brazil. In the end, Gilliam got his version released, and numerous critics groups honored it with awards. He made a work of art that is dense in both ideas and narrative information, artistically fully realized, and oddly prescient about the world we find ourselves in three decades after it was released. Brazil belongs in any discussion of the best films ever made.
Gilliam has certain thematic obsessions that he explores again and again with varying degrees of success: The wistful outsider who feels crushed by the weight of society’s expectations, the power of fantasy and imagination to propel humans beyond the limitations of reason, and the absurdity of human existence. Brazil is the perfect vehicle to explore these obsessions, and simply put, it’s a masterpiece. The director’s career is akin to tilting at windmills, and with Brazil he proved it’s a noble fight.
Why it got 5 stars:
- It’s one of the best films ever made. Brazil is what it looks like when one of the most inventive, imaginative, off-his-rocker directors of all time is at the top of his game.
- Everything clicks in this movie. From the pitch-black satirical humor, to the evocative imagery, to the clever story – it all works.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There’s so much that could go under this heading. I could write 10 times about why Brazil is as good as it is, and never repeat myself.
- Robert De Niro. He’s only in a handful of scenes, but his role as Harry Tuttle – the man the Ministry of Information really wants – is brought to life by De Niro with a zany hilarity. In one scene, his dialog is delivered while his mouth is covered by a mask, but De Niro insisted on take after take when he didn’t get it just right. It drove Gilliam nuts.
- Ian Holm. The twitchy, weasely middle-manager Holm plays is one of the best of his career. Best line: “What a pathetic creature I am!”
- That incredible last shot. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Like most Kubrick films, when I’m watching Brazil, I’m thinking about the last shot. I’m thinking about how gratifying it will be to take it in, especially after emotionally earning it by going on the journey of the entire movie.
- The late, great Michael Kamen’s score is incredible. It’s bombastic, epic, and swells with emotion. Gilliam came up with the title for the film when he imagined a man sitting on a beach, listening to the song Brazil on the radio as a way to escape the environmental ruin caused by industrial factories. Kamen incorporated the tune into the score beautifully.
- Another favorite line of mine- When Sam asks after his friend's (Michael Palin) twins, the friend corrects him, "Triplets." Sam responds, "Triplets?! My, how time flies!"
- I was able to check this one off my must-see-on-the-big-screen list when the Inwood Theater screened it as part of their Midnight Movie series. If you know me, you know my obsession with repertory screenings.