Brazil (1985) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Brazil (1985)

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Danny LIKEThere's a lot that can be said about Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and I'm sure you can find a lot of it said better than it's being said here. It's one of those movies that inspire thesis's, an onion of strange ideas, strange images, and, in general, strangeness.

Plotwise, we're following Jonathon Pryce through an Orwelian nightmare that played too much Mall Madness. It's a future full of receipts, cheap facelifts, and everyone giving and getting the same Christmas gift.

The gift itself is a rather small triffle: a weight that you crank to an apex and then release so that it falls into two categories: yes or no. Pryce is a consummate lackey in the Records Department of a futuristic Britain, a place of large forbidding buildings, burning oil, and cheery billboards hiding the desolate landscape. He seems to be doing his best to sleep through life until his nightly dreams begin to become a strange reality; in them, he's an avenging angel, flying free in a fantastically colored sky. As the dream progresses, though, he finds a beautiful blonde woman calling to him, and he's smitten.

If only his real life were so glamorous. His youth obsessed mother is trying to push a promotion on him, and the heat in his apartment has malfunctioned. He's caught up in a bungle when he notices that a bug in the system lead to a wrongful arrest and death. They need to charge the dead man's wife for the inconvenience, and Pryce is forced to be the patsy. During his expedition to visit the woman, however, he catches a glimpse of the woman of his dreams, and becomes obsessed with finding her.

There is a number of side characters in the proceedings. Robert DeNiro is a rogue air conditioning specialist who helps Pryce out in a pickle, Bob Hoskins is the hostile and vengeful air conditioning repairman who comes from the government, Michael Palin is an expert of 'information extraction' which usually involves a lot of blood, and then there's Kim Greist as the woman of Pryce's dreams, labeled a terrorist for trying to free an innocent man through a labyrinth of paperwork.

The movie itself is long and chaotic; no single character in the film knows the complete story, and they world they occupy is a miasma of madness solidified. The future that they occupy is an inspired mix of the grim forced conformity of 1984 and the complacency-by-pleasure ideas of Brave New World. There's a terrorist network that only appears via a few scattered bombings and as a convenient label for anyone who refuses to go along with the 'perfect' government. And there's no escape from any of this except by way of imagination.

Gilliam gives us this with his usual visual panache. As Pryce ascends the rank of the bureaucracy, the world he finds looks more and more ordered but is just as chaotic as the outside world. While he finds a job where there are huge hallways, he also discovers that he must spend his time in an office barely large enough to contain half a desk. To add insult to injury, he has to fight for that half of the desk with the man who has the other half in his office next door.

The rest of the world isn't so orderly. A place named Shangri-La Apartments should conjure up anything other than a run down slum filled with children eagerly recreating the government's kidnapping raids. You see fields of billboards lining the road, hiding out the desolate landscape beyond. And, in my favorite visual gag, we see a shot of brightly painted coolant towers only to have an enormous bum emerge from behind them. We cut to a long shot to see that they're a model and the actual towers themselves are filthy and covered in debris. The bum's response to all this is to poor his beer on the model.

What does it mean? Well, a lot of things, I guess, and possibly nothing at all. The future Brazil portrays is already obsolete (thanks internet), but I have more than a sneaking suspicion that this was never really a daring tale of 'the future yet to come'.

I mean, a world where paperwork reigns supreme, where you're promised one thing and given another, where Christmas is nothing but everyone buying each other the same present, and where terrorism is used as excuse to turn anyone the government deems so into an enemy? Yeah, I don't think that sounds quite so far fetched.

Regardless, Brazil is a hectic over-the-top satire with a 'throw it at the wall and we'll see what sticks' sensibility. It can be confusing, creepy, comedic, and maybe more than a little crazy, but it's certainly never one thing, and that's dull.

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Brazil (1985)

Brazil is currently available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Trailer | IMDB
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard
Starry Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro, and Michael Palin

Posted by Danny

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  1. I watched Brazil for the first time ever just a few months back, and while I found it overly long and perhaps a little too Gilliam, what struck me most was something I think you touched on but missed in conclusion…

    That being that the death of personal liberty rarely happens rapidly. There’s usually no Buzz Windrip waiting to sweep the nation into totalitarian lockdown, but rather the whimper of slow erosion. Here, the government is put in charge, there the government is put in charge until no one can think for themselves, no one seems to notice the government crackdowns. When the populace believes that no one has a job but for the government, no one has safety but for the government, no one has comfort but for the government (whether because of the threat of terrorism, injustice, or a lack of air conditioning), the government has free reign to do whatever it wants without consequence. The scene in the restaurant is proof enough of that, I think.

    And maybe I’ve just forgotten, but I don’t remember there being a soma in the film; people are complacent because the government has taken away all but the most mundane choices (hence the popularity of the decision-guillotines). This is very much an adaptation of 1984, presented satirically rather than as a dark warning.

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