Terry Gilliam has a warped mind. We all knew he was a tad bizarre when we saw his animation on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1960s, but this is the film that really separated him from the Python pack and established him as not only one of the greatest directors of our times but as an intellectual, cryptic and bizarre individual.
Brazil is a black, black, BLACK comedy set in an alternate reality or the future (the film cryptically says in the beginning ‘Somewhere in the 20th century’) probably in England.
The world is ruled by ‘The Ministry’ which serves as a place where everything is ultra-organized and super-efficient. But everyone seems to be happy because everything is convenient.
Every room has little televisions and behind the walls are tons of tubes and wires. But things keep breaking and can’t be fixed because you need a billion forms to even walk out of the office to go and fix it up (sounds like present-day New York City).
Our hero is the daydreaming Sam Lowry (pictured above), a low-level government worker who has fantasies of flying and saving a beautiful woman trapped in a cage. This dream sequence is shown intermittently in the film.
His mother, Ida, is a filthy rich woman who dines with her superficial friends, gets bizarre face-lifts from Dr Jaffe – the coolest effect in the film, by the way – and wants her son to be a high-level worker with an office and benefits and the whole nine yards. But Sam seems content with his dreams. It seems everyone wants him to wake up to reality and be shallow like everyone else.
The plot of the film is set in motion when a government worker accidentally screws up an arrest form and gets the wrong man. The police break in and begin a hilariously ridiculous arrest scene, break all the windows, bust up the apartment above theirs and put a sackcloth over their man – Mr Buttle.
The scene is handled perfectly, with satirical comedy, as the family is distraught and confused by what is happening and the big cheese walks in and coldly gives her forms to sign (‘This is your receipt, and this is my receipt for your receipt.’). We then meet Sam who has to sort this mess out for his nervous and slightly incompetent boss, Mr Kurtzman.
But he is distracted because, on his way to work one day, he sees a woman who is a dead ringer for the woman in his dreams. She turns out to be a butch truck driver and alleged-rebel, Jill Layton, who wants nothing to do with him but is somewhat drawn by his Kafkaesque ways of wooing her (“I love you . . . er . . . er, in my dreams I love you”).
Sam also gets into the rebellion thanks to an encounter with a renegade air-conditioner repairman (Get that for a rebel), Harry Tuttle, who was the man the Ministry were looking for in the beginning and who quit the government because of too much paperwork. His interception of a phone call when Sam’s air conditioning dies winds him in a lot of trouble with the Ministry of Works, represented by two weird repairmen, one being Spoor.
Sam ends up taking the big promotion his mother set up for him just so he can track down this Jill Layton easily, but finds himself overwrought with even more paperwork and a tiny, claustrophobic office where he shares a desk with a bizarre man named Lime. In possibly the best scene in the film, he has a Chaplin-esque war over who gets the majority of the desk with Lime.
His boss is a quick-talking Mr Warren, who shows him to his office and yells at him for having a messy desk since all he’s doing is becoming obsessed with Jill.
The film is a plunge into the deepening insanity of a man who is having a war between his dreams and the reality of a burdensome world which is too efficient for its own good.
Soon everyone has turned against him, including his best friend, Jack (a memorably menacing Michael Palin). And by the end, he has won – he is totally numb and lives inside his mind, flying in the clouds with his dream girl and humming the cool Latino song Brazil.
The film is deeply satirical, almost as much as what seems to be its big inspiration, 1984. For one thing, everyone but the rebels and Sam are superficial twits. In one scene, he attends his mother’s party (‘Simply everyone is here’) and meets some of the weirdest people.
There is also a running gag about plastic surgery – his mother has been getting it and as the film goes on she’s getting younger and younger. Meanwhile, her one friend has been getting complications to her complications to her complications and by the end, is wrapped like a mummy being pushed in a wheelchair by her shallow daughter (one scene, he meets her while she’s lingerie shopping, prompting what may be the funniest joke in the film).
And the end prompts a huge action sequence which is set into motion after a frightening torture sequence where Sam is strapped into a metal chair in the middle of a huge dome. There are many explosions in the film since there are terrorists who are always trying to get people to realise how horrible society is but they’re too wrapped up in things to even notice.
In once scene, Sam has lunch with his mother at a fancy restaurant and in the middle of the meal, an explosion takes place but they don’t even look and the Maitre De sets up a block and has the orchestra keep playing.
Brazil also features several brilliant tracking shots. The most menacing one is when Sam is strapped down before the torture sequence and the camera pulls back from his face to show how small he is in the dome.
Another one – the best one – shows an office full of people running around and the camera quickly zooms from the back up to the front with people running in front of the camera but never hitting it and then zooms right up to Ian Holm.
This is possibly one of the best films of the 1980s and one of the most cryptically brilliant films ever made.
Terry Gilliam’s image of a superficial society where dreams have become scarce is perfectly done the way he wanted it, even though he had to fight a company who wanted to manufacture it for the masses, even though it’s more of a cult film nowadays. But never has Terry Gilliam’s direction been more on target. He perfectly targets who he wants to get and makes the film hilarious if not totally bizarre. Indeed, this film deserves multiple viewing just to get everything.
The Oscar-nominated script is wonderfully biting. It pokes fun at everything and contains some of the most clever lines ever. It also has some of the most eccentric characters in all of cinematic history. Besides which, it’s damn cool.
Robert De Niro
Charlie – Dept. of Works
Bill – Dept. of Works
M.O.I. Lobby Porter
First Black Maria Guard