(1985, Terry Gilliam)
“Now they got the whole country sectioned off, you can’t make a move without a form”
Much like A Fish Called Wanda, this is another project that emerged following the disbanding of the Monty Python comedy troupe. And yet again it sees Michael Palin working with one of his former partners. But that’s where the similarities end. While Wanda was an attempt for John Cleese to get out there and write comedy by himself, this is Terry Gilliam’s first post-Python entry in the world of very weird film-making.
Brazil is set in a strange dystopian world similar to that of George Orwell’s 1984. Only where 1984 featured an omnipresent Big Brother that could efficiently exterminate you for merely thinking the wrong thing, Brazil presents what would happen if that system was run by a bunch of incompetent bureaucrats.
Indeed, the plot of the movie kicks off with a clerical error leading to the capture, torture and eventual state-sponsored murder of Archibald Buttle, when really, they were after Archibald Tuttle. It’s up to daydreaming records clerk Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) to correct this, plunging him into a dangerous world of intrigue that threatens to have him disposed by the same system he’s working to help.
The first, most obvious thing about Brazil is its visual style. Gilliam, famed for his quirky animations as part of the Python troupe, is a very visual director, and it shows here. Every shot has been meticulously put together to look good on screen, and it usually does. There are times when the film shows its age, but on the whole, it looks fantastic. The city looks suitably oppressive, and the dream sequences are stunning. The creatures populating them are brilliantly designed, from the robot samurai to the creepy baby-faced torturers.
But what of the plot? Does it hold together as well as the visuals? Yes and no. The concept works consistently, and the idea of a dystopian society being run by bureaucrats is inspired. After all, if anything is good at holding people down in a brainless funk, it’s excessive amounts of paperwork. It’s also good to see the government of a piece of dystopian fiction being brought down to a human level by saying they’re just as capable of making terrible mistakes as the rest of us. Only these mistakes have far-reaching consquences.
But overall, the plot’s a little all over the place. The fact that Sam is more driven by trying to find the woman he’s seen in his dreams than anything directly related to the government issues means the plot is trying to chase too many strands at once. It tries to be a comedy of errors set in a universe similar to that of 1984, it tries to be a story of a daydreaming man chasing after a mysterious woman he’s fallen in love with, and it tries to be a conspiracy thriller about an attempt to bring down a totalitarian government, and none of these elements blend particularly well with one another.
This isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, of course. The performances are excellent, particularly from Pryce, who is perfect for his role, and Robert De Niro’s fleeting appearances are always entertaining. There’s also standout moments from Michael Palin as a creepily cheerful state interrogator, and from Ian Holm as a completely inept manager dealing with a situation that does little more than stress him out.
The movie is also very funny. Despite being from a former Python (and featuring Michael Palin in a fairly major role) I wasn’t expecting a funny movie, possibly because of the whole dystopia theme. Yet there are plenty of moments of comedy here, whether it’s Sam basically doing his manager’s job for him or a small child telling Sam (holding his new suit) to “put it on, big boy”. These moments actually sit quite well alongside the more serious parts. In less-skilled hands, the comic elements could be jarring, but here, thanks to Gilliam’s Python experience, they work.
Brazil is a strange movie, one that is highly entertaining yet also highly flawed. It’s not Monty Python, and it’s not 1984, it’s somewhere in between.
Starring Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin & Kim Greist
Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown
Produced by Arnon Milchan
Music score by Michael Kamen
Cinematography by Roger Pratt
Edited by Julian Doyle
Favourite Scene: Ian Holm fretting over what to do with a refund cheque was highly entertaining. Although it doesn’t sound like it on paper.
Scene That Bugged Me: The scene with Sam and Jill in the truck went on a little longer than was entirely necessary in my opinion
Watch it if: You need some catharsis from filling out mountains of paperwork
Avoid it if: You’re more of an Orwell fan