Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam | 2hr 12min

Describing a piece of fiction as Orwellian has become some sort of vague platitude to acknowledge a scathing attack on totalitarianism, yet few films fit the descriptor better than Brazil. The very concept of a man and a woman escaping an authoritarian government, making love, and falling right back into the government’s clutches is no doubt a familiar narrative to those familiar with ‘1984’. But where George Orwell’s Airstrip One was ruled by the indomitable force of Big Brother, Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic dystopian city envisioned in Brazil is hilariously incompetent.

Overhead shots, always turning an eye of surveillance down on Sam.

Jonathan Pryce’s protagonist Sam Lowry is introduced in a dream as a winged knight, soaring through clouds and seeing visions of a mysterious woman. Later, he dreams of monsters roaming city streets, and a large robot used to subdue citizens. Though these dreams indicate an imaginative man out of step with his surroundings, their manifestations in reality also suggest something more surreal at work. Is Sam prophesising the future? Do his dreams actually have power to shape reality? Perhaps if this city could put its mind to something other than blunt commercialism and nonsensical data he might actually get answers.

The machines that have been built to assist the humans in their quest for rigidity are barely efficient themselves. Sam’s coffee machine swings around wildly, pouring boiling water over his toast. The elevator at his work malfunctions at the worst possible time. And the catalyst for Brazil‘s entire plot stems from a fly falling into a teleprinter, causing it to stamp an incorrect name on a form. Few people are able to look past this clerical error and see the truth. Whatever is printed on a form becomes law.

Nothing signifies the distortion of something meaningful into a consumerist spending spree like the birth of Jesus, and Gilliam is all too aware of the implications in setting this story at Christmastime. Tinsels, trees, and fairy lights are pathetically scattered around this depressingly grey city. Even a sign that hilariously reads “Consumers for Christ” suggests a society that has become self-aware of its own vapidity.

It is all one giant distraction though, and the utter disconnection between the citizens and the very real social issues that surround them are milked for all their comedic value. There are terrorists on the loose, and early on an explosion in the background of a restaurant is nothing but a mere annoyance to the patrons who keep chatting away. As a string trio play a rendition of Hava Nagila, emergency responders gather quickly to put out the fire and rescue the wounded. All the restaurant manager can think to do is place a partition between the patrons and the fuss going on behind them.

Maximalist clutter through the foreground and background, all in the name of absurdist comedy.

This absurdist comedy was perfected by the Monty Python troupe, but Terry Gilliam simply extends on that in Brazil with his audacious visual gags and balls-to-the-wall maximalist production design. In cluttering his frames with clunky machines, metallic pillars, and ducts, he traps Sam like a prisoner behind these enormous constructs.

In its city scenes, Brazil often seems like Britain’s response to Blade Runner, building on the cyberpunk noir aesthetic with a heavy dose of surrealism and comedy. Like Ridley Scott’s 1982 film and Metropolis that set a precedent almost sixty years prior, the square block miniatures of the futuristic civilisation are so intricate that it is easy to forget these buildings aren’t hundreds of metres tall. That is, until Gilliam plays his own trick on the audience by pulling the camera back to amusingly reveal the falsity of one of these miniature sets.

Surrealism and visual gags through miniatures – this is Metropolis, Blade Runner, but also distinctly Gilliam.

This maddening, unnerving mise-en-scene fills Brazil from start to end. Most impressive of all is the torture room, a large, cylindrical space that drops down into jagged, metal spokes fanning out from the centre. To lift this lunacy into the realm of complete insanity, Gilliam’s wide-angle lens distorts everything that little bit more. Jonathan Pryce’s face is the perfect canvas for these warped, low-angle close-ups, as everything around him seems to spread outwards from his bulging eyes.

From here on Brazil descends further into surrealism, with Sam making his eventual escape to live a content life in the countryside with Jill. It is suspiciously rushed and unearned, though everything falls into place with the crushing reveal that this entire sequence has only unfolded in his lobotomised dream state. As incompetent and witless as the state is, their blunt power more than makes up for it, leaving Sam to happily indulge in his own imagination. Terry Gilliam’s construction of a futuristic Britain is visually daunting, but Brazil never shies away from the dark comedy of a government desperately out of touch with reality.

Maddening wide angle lenses only intensifying Gilliam’s formidable production design.

Brazil is currently available to stream on Mubi Australia, and to buy or rent on iTunes and YouTube.

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