Brazil (1985)

Directed by Terry Gilliam

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The world of Brazil is the thing of nightmares, at least those nightmares that feel vaguely real but are just a little off.  It’s a mechanized, modern world in which everything is falling apart.  The machinery itself is on the fritz, with several visual gags reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), and there has been so much terrorism that when a bomb blows up in a restaurant, the band keeps playing and the patrons keep eating.

It’s Dr. Suess on crack.  That’s what Brazil is.  We recognize so much of this world as extensions of the way we already live, but everything is a little more than what we’re used to.  The buildings are taller, the small offices are smaller, the plastic surgery is more plastic-er, and it’s all framed in wide angle lenses titled in such a way to distort everything as much as possible.  It’s also like a Farside cartoon come to life, particularly with the costume design, much of which seems to be from the 1940s and 50s.  It’s a visual style that seems to have influenced the screwball comedies of the Coen Brothers (mostly The Hudsucker Proxy), and it has a long sequence set in an industrial wasteland like the bleak landscape of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert.  Brazil combines the fantastical, the absurd and the bleak into a weird smoothie, like mixing strawberries with potato chips and mud.

This is an uncomfortable world, not quite scary or disgusting or unfathomable but a little bit of everything.  Our hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a mid-level employee at one of those cartoonishly bland corporations where what he does either doesn’t matter or is too boring to describe.  It’s a job, is the point, and he claims to enjoy it.

Sam has been having dreams of a woman he doesn’t know, and he soon runs into her while issuing a refund check to the family of a man wrongfully arrested and subsequently killed.  This woman turns out to be Jill Layton (Kim Greist), a terrorist whose activities do not deter Sam’s infatuation with her.

As Sam pursues Jill, he finds himself on the run from the authorities.  The chase ends with his capture, but he appears to be saved by a guardian angel sort of figure, a rebellious handyman named Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro).  Sam reunites with Jill, and they escape together.  At least until we learn that he never really escaped and that he is simply imagining the happiness while he’s tortured in an electric chair-type of contraption.

It’s a simple story that doesn’t really get going until halfway into the movie.  Before Sam becomes an enemy of the state, he mostly bumbles around this strange dystopian world, allowing us an opportunity to marvel and wince at the environment which is to him so ordinary.

It’s one of those futuristic worlds in which everything is old and outdated, even though to us it’s kind of amazing.  We look at Sam’s world with a sense of curiosity and bewilderment that he’s never had.  His day to day life becomes a spectacle, with every little detail something to be absorbed.  It’s the same technique used in many futuristic worlds, whether Blade Runner or Elysium.  We see something out of this world but which is in a state of decay or disorder.  No matter how impressive or advanced the technology is, it will always fail us.

Sam is one of the more ordinary figures, if only because he has dreams.  His love for a woman he doesn’t know is just vague enough to be relatable.  In a world where everyone’s needs are taken care of, the fact that he has any makes him more human than the rest.

Sam’s mother is a powerful figure concerned only with her next round of plastic surgery.  Her procedure works well enough, at first, in contrast with that of her friend who suffers a series of complications which turn her into a Frankstein-esque monster.  It’s just another example of this world failing the people who inhabit it, though she doesn’t seem to notice.

Now, Sam is an interesting figure.  We like him because we understand him, but he’s also part of the problem.  In this place the corporations rule everything, and Sam works for that corporation.  He’s good at his job but this pleases only his boss who doesn’t want to lose him.  It’s a job he shouldn’t enjoy because we definitely wouldn’t.  He works in a busy office environment with no personal space and no sense of hope.  It’s one of those soul-crushing stereotypes of a cubicle office, like the one in Dilbert.

Early in the film, a man named Buttle is arrested due to a typing error (when a dead fly falls into an automated machine) for an arrest report for a man named Tuttle, the Robert De Niro figure who helps Sam out in a pinch several times.  Buttle is arrested and because of a heart condition dies in custody.  No one wants to accept blame, and it falls upon Sam to deliver a refund check to the wife of the deceased.  He delivers the check with no real sense of her grief, believing it to be enough that he was polite.

In this scene he’s a type of ‘other,’ the character we can’t relate to and the one whose disconnected attitude towards the bereaved symbolizes the cruel nature of the world as a whole.  And yet this is also our hero, the one whose dreams we’ve watched and whose frustrations we’ve felt.  We’re both asked to identify with him and then regret his own actions.

I suppose it just adds up to a portrait of a man who’s very much confused.  He has no career ambition but no career frustrations.  He doesn’t love the woman he’s set up with but is quickly infatuated with the woman of his dreams, a terrorist whom he puts off.  In many scenes Sam expresses our point of vie and in others he embodies the qualities of this world that push us away.

Brazil is a thought-provoking film which is also incredibly funny.  It can be both a nightmare and then a screwball comedy, poking fun at Sam’s floundering and the world as a whole.  Every electronic device acts up, and everything seems to conspire to keep Sam away from the girl he’s after.  The zany, fast-paced comedy is similar to that of another 1985 film, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours in which New York at night turns into a nightmarish maze in which everything inexplicably conspires to keep Griffin Dunne from getting home.

So I think the main point of Brazil is to create a world that keeps us at arm’s distance.  It’s a sign of where we’re headed, but it’s also so heightened and absurd, as if to reassure us that we’ll never become the people who populate this nightmarish place.  It’s an entertaining movie which I was happy to see come to an end.

Up Next: Falling Down (1993), King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), There Will Be Blood (2007)

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