Reviews of Classic Movies: 'Brazil'


For some inexplicable reason, dystopian societies are all the rage at the movies right now. It’s especially noticeable in the movies adapted from young adult (YA) novels, where some bland protagonist, designed to appeal to everyday teenagers, is granted the special ability to overtake a totalitarian government (oh, and fall in love with a mysterious rebel at the same time).

So whenever I feel the need to rant about the pandering, consumerist title of a movie like The Divergent Series: Insurgent, I try to calm down by seeking out a movie that gets dystopia right - a film where a blissful resolution isn’t pre-ordained, or where the gritty, de-saturated visuals feel less like an Instagram filter and more like a logical part of the setting.

How fortunate I was, then, to pick up the Criterion Collection edition of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil recently. Released nearly thirty years ago in February 1985, after a round of the kind of studio interference that has frequently plagued Gilliam’s career, Brazil has since become a stellar example of the kind of social critique that the current glut of YA adaptations fail to be. Granted, the film accomplishes this through Gilliam’s characteristic twisted humour and reluctance to explain things. But even after one viewing, Brazil is resonant enough to make any viewer re-examine their interactions with government – something recent dystopian movies could never aspire to.

Brazil follows a young bureaucrat named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who lives in a grey, sullen future ruled by paperwork and surveillance. Even the homes of the rich and powerful in this film have huge, octopus-like conduits and ducts running through them – no one is immune from the apparatus of the state winding its way through their lives. When we meet Sam, he’s content in his low-level job processing the paperwork of the secret police department called Information Retrieval. At night, though, Sam finds himself having powerful dreams depicting him as a flying knight, battling strange creatures in an attempt to save a blonde damsel.

But when Sam attempts to correct a filing error (which led to the execution of an innocent man), he comes across a woman who looks exactly like the one from his dream (Kim Greist). Sam realizes the only way to get to know her and figure out why she appears in his subconscious is to be promoted to Information Retrieval. No sooner does he move into his laughably tiny office in the department that he’s sent down a never-ending rabbit hole of euphemism, betrayal and torture, all because he tried to burst free from the status quo.

As Sam, Jonathan Pryce strikes a relatable balance between an affable, scholarly type and a repressed radical. We can sense from his early scenes that Sam possesses a kind of righteous indignation about the structure of his world, but his rational side compels him to try to work within the system as best he can. Unlike the actors who portray the heroes of contemporary dystopian fiction, who resemble blank slates in whom viewers can vaguely see themselves, Pryce isn’t afraid to look foolish, clumsy or awkward as Sam. There’s an element of physical comedy in Pryce’s performance that makes him far more believable, helped by a script that isn’t too shy to include challenging ideas and unhappy endings.

Kim Greist as Jill Layton, the woman who appears in Sam's dreams.
Kim Greist as Jill Layton, the woman who appears in Sam's dreams.

With CGI unavailable to Gilliam in the mid-80s, he constructs his bureaucratic netherworld with practical effects and detailed models. Viewed today, the visuals may not have the gloss or “realism” of newer science fiction and fantasy, but they do convey the feeling of a grimy, lived-in society, one where you would apply and wait for three months just to get your windows cleaned. The visual connections to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis are undeniable: skylines dominated by angular, identical skyscapers, with millions of drone-like residents buzzing around like insects, going through the motions of daily life.

Where Brazil really surges ahead of the YA films that have appropriated its tone is in its reluctance to explain itself. By now, attentive movie-goers are used to new films that include several ubiquitous scenes where the backstory and/or rules of the dystopia are crammed into some dialogue between characters, or into opening narration.

In Brazil, Gilliam doesn’t get caught up in justifying how his society began – there’s no evil political leader or global cataclysm. Even as new elements are introduced, like the Orwellian doublespeak that Michael Palin’s character uses to talk about torture, we have to figure out what he means by paying attention to the scene, like noticing the blood-splattered apron Palin wears. Brazil is a verbal and visual puzzle that must be solved, but it’s never needlessly convoluted.

Of course, there is a dimension in movies that Brazil may not be able to achieve: accessibility. How accessible is the film to the average viewer? To be sure, the ending of the film leaves us in a very upsetting place, and Universal Pictures initially dropped it in favour of exactly the kind of happy ending that YA movies rely on. The ending, combined with the acidic, anti-bureaucratic critique and disturbing visuals, don’t reward the pleasure centers of the brain in the way a Divergent movie surely does for some people. I remember one point in my recent viewing where I said out loud, “Now here is Gilliam, being deliberately challenging.” But even I’m not always in the mood for that kind of thing, so bear that in mind if you’ve never seen it before.

At the time it was released, Gilliam’s movie was intended as a cautionary tale, something to remind people of the possible extremes of bureaucracy (where people are killed when paperwork is misfiled). And while Gilliam’s vision of the future hasn’t come to pass as quickly as he may have thought at the time, Brazil is still spookily plausible in a way that newer films of its genre are not.

Brazil gets three and a half stars out of four.

Have you seen Brazil? Do you think Gilliam’s possible future may be ours as well? Or is there simply too much overwrought concern and weirdness in the film? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!