Looking back at Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s dark sci-fi Brazil remains one of the director’s finest films to date. Andrew takes a look back at a classic future nightmare…

Brazil is one of my favourite films. It’s so wrong. It’s vibrant in its despondency. It shakes you by the shoulders and yells at you, “You are not alone! But… you are a bit doomed.”

It takes a mere two minutes to concoct a dazzlingly nightmarish retro-future, a steam powered bureaucracy revealed in huge pull-backs, a superb array of set-design and props, noirish-costumes, and well-cast actors. A family scene at Christmas is completely and utterly destroyed in a twisted parody of Santa’s arrival, and you can’t help but feel the sudden seizure of a man from his home feels that much more relevant now than it did in 1985.

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All of this is coupled with the scenes of the bureaucracy that causes this mistake. By this point on initial viewing, I was completely hooked. More so than Gilliam’s previous, already visually packed, films, Brazil throws so much at you while subtly expositing the film’s world, and then brings us to the central characters.

You might expect Michael Palin to play the hero, Sam Lowry, because he’s so reminiscent of past Palin characters: small ambitions, thwarted dreams, exasperated by circumstances, essentially trapped but good natured. Yet Palin instead plays against type as Jack Lint, government sanctioned torturer. He’s deliciously unsettling, and occasionally terrifying, initially portrayed as a family man in a non-specific job, before being unleashed, clad in white coat and bloodstained baby mask.

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Jonathan Pryce carries the film as Sam Lowry, a government worker who, while investigating a system error that has resulted in the death of an innocent man accused of being a terrorist, meets Jill (Kim Greist), a young woman who looks exactly like a woman from his dreams. When Jill is also suspected of being a terrorist, Sam finds himself increasingly out of his depth as the imaginary and the real world collide, and the sinister Jack Lint closes in.

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Everyone – from Simon Jones as the Government official handing Sheila Reid several forms to fill in as soldiers drag away her husband, to Gordon Kaye’s snooty Ministry of Information Registrar – is well cast in all sizes of role. Robert De Niro also plays against type in a comic part, and in a much less jarring manner than he would later manage. Kim Greist as Jill, the object of Sam Lowry’s fantasy, isn’t nearly as weak a link as is made out, but neither does she really seize the role with any sort of vigour. Jim Broadbent is as grotesque as he was in Time Bandits as Sam’s Mother’s plastic surgeon, twisting and stretching flesh like dough as he prattles on. It’s a richly populated world indeed.

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The set design, locations, and set dressing, ranging from Sam’s cream-coloured automated flat to the imposing and oppressive entrance hall of the Ministry, builds the world further. Ducts spew into ornate restaurants, creep into the background of upper class parties, and dominate the dwellings of the lower classes. Reid’s flat has ducting but none of the new technologies that dominate Sam’s abode. The Ministry is huge, foreboding, and – through Gilliam’s choice of lens – has corridors that seem to go on forever. If the film were made now, the background posters (“We’re all in it together”, for example, a phrase that has extra meaning now) would be available in Forbidden Planet.

If you were going to criticise of Brazil, it would be that it’s 143 minutes long. Any film that long has to fight to sustain your attention, and the film’s middle act slows down a bit to focus on Sam’s relationship with Jill, now that he has found her in reality (by taking a job that he hates and hunting her through the Information Retrieval services). It’s here that the thought occurs to me that Brazil might have been better served as a series rather than a movie. Certainly there would probably have been less interference, and it would be harder for the studio to impose the hatchet job of cuts it did on Brazil. In the 80s, a television series might not have been an option, however.

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In the meantime, there’s a car chase and explosions, as Sam escapes from the ministry with Jill, but this is not a typical action sequence. There are fantastical interludes, some romantic misunderstandings, but above all, there are consequences. Sam’s initial excitement at being a (sort-of) action hero is undermined immediately when he sees a man covered head to foot in flames emerging from the wreckage of a crash. Compared with an earlier scene in the film, his reaction to a terrorist bombing is drastically altered as a result.

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Most films usually have the middle act being where things start to go wrong for the hero. Instead, things start to go right, as Sam manages to use the system against itself, culminating in one of the most disgusting death scenes in the history of cinema, and it looks as if Sam has saved Jill from another government error, and everything is going to be just fine. Then the really weird stuff begins.

Initially, Brazil comes across as a kind of black comedy version of 1984 (and compared to that story, perhaps Brazil‘s ending does have some small semblance of victory to it). Where it differs, though, is that the government in Brazil appears to be incompetent, and yet still all-powerful. We see this in the Heath Robinson visuals, and its portrayal of a bureaucracy creaking and hissing its rule over all, and in the use of fantasy.

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The latter element is part of the main character’s personality, as well as an excuse for stunning imagery on a scale that Gilliam had not achieved before (and considering some of the visuals in Time Bandits, that’s really saying something). Eventually, this fantasy comes to the fore, as Sam’s inner battles manifest themselves in his daily life and beyond.

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The storyline is something any teenager can relate to at a base level (down with the government, up with sexual intercourse), but with complexities that improve as age and wisdom theoretically occur. So much is going on in the background that repeat viewings are always rewarded, and that’s what sets this film apart. It might be possible to tell this story as a series of two-handers in a bare room, using only dialogue, but then it wouldn’t soar.

It would be clever, and funny, and slightly more dystopian than most theatre, but what we wouldn’t get is the lived-in vastness that cinema of this time could achieve. The only recent example I can think of that comes close is Children Of Men, which also goes for a retro-future look and is clearly influenced by Gilliam’s work. In that film, CGI is used sparingly, and when it is used, it integrates with the world and has weight to it. Nearly all of Brazil‘s effects are practical.

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Brazil contains indelible images that engage and inspire and terrify. It links them around the recurring piece of music that gives the film its title, and achieves things that leave jaws slack and eyes wide. A huge, circular torture chamber, enlarged and emboldened by Gilliam’s perspective distortion, is in fact shot in the inside of a cooling tower, but when you leave it you do so via a cluttered and cramped reception inside a Ministry building. All the while the secretary types away, transcribing the cries of pain and death from within the torture chamber. Death by bureaucracy occurs several times throughout, and in increasingly outlandish ways.

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The system of government cannot admit when it has made a mistake, and its initial error is repeated again and again, until it eventually hunts down and extinguishes all traces of it. That this initial error is so banal and silly, and in no way malicious (except to the fly that inadvertently caused the mess in the first instance), merely makes the whole thing seem even more farcical. But that’s what Brazil is. It’s 1984 with a sense of Grand Guignol – bureaucracy turning people into macabre sociopaths so that the only way out is through fantasy worlds.

Try not to think about that when you’re watching it, though.