Terry Gilliam is one of the few true visionaries of modern cinema. The worlds he creates are so completely realized that one cannot help but be swept into his imagination. 25 years ago, I saw Brazil in a Miami theatre and was, indeed, swept away. It remains one of my favorite films ever.
I won’t recount the film’s plot here, nor the behind-the-scenes drama that prevented the film from ever getting the wide release it deserved. Instead, I want readers who have never had the pleasure of seeing this unique work to have that experience. So, spoilers ahead!
The story plays on a classic theme: man against the system. In this case, it is the dreams of one man that propel him through a dystopian world in search of his dream girl. And what a world! Today, CGI has made it impossible to distinguish what is real from what is false. Back then, however, Mr. Gilliam created his imagery through astonishing production design, remarkable miniature work, and matte paintings. Even the film’s most mundane scenes are still triumphs of artistry, design, and good old-fashioned imagination. I feel Brazil’s world is superior to that of every computer-generated world that has since been manufactured.
Having created this oppressive, bureaucratic world, and contrasting it with Sam Lowry’s dreamscapes, Gilliam fleshed out his vision with the best actors that England had to offer. Jonathan Pryce’s frantic Everyman, Ian Holm’s prissy and meaningless bureaucrat, Michael Palin’s ruthless functionary, Bob Hoskins’ overzealous repairman, and every little supporting role down to Sheila Reid’s heart-wrenching single scene of despair…everyone was pitch-perfect.
Mr. Gilliam’s writing (co-scripted along with Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown, who also provided a wonderfully sniveling performance), and direction provide the audience with the right blend of his trademark comedic style, wild camera angles, and dramatic tension. In short, we care. We want to see Sam and Jill end up together. We want to see them conquer the real world with their love.
The late Michael Kamen provides one of his best scores, expertly weaving it alongside Mr. Gilliam’s widely varying tones, yet maintaining consistency via recurring motifs, and providing viewers with the proper emotional underpinnings for every scene. Mr. Kamen also knows the power of silence, using it during the film’s most terrifying moments.
Readers of Andrew Breitbart’s websites will find particular resonance in the world Mr. Gilliam created. People are quick to characterize it as “Orwellian”, yet there is a fundamental difference. Orwell’s 1984 government was designed to enslave the people. Brazil‘s world appears to have been one in which an obese bureaucracy seems to have taken on a life of its own, and the system itself seems to control those who are allegedly in charge. The system may have, in fact, gotten so out of control that the explosions blamed on never-seen terrorists may simply be the system imploding from within. The bureaucracy itself holds the populace in such a stranglehold that even accidentally stepping out of line can place one on an express train to a death sentence. Therefore, exceptionalism and individualism are the enemies, as personified by Robert DeNiro’s Harry Tuttle. The frenetic government search for this mystery man, who apparently swoops from apartment to apartment repairing eternally dysfunctional ventilation systems, is their top priority. If there ever was an allegory for the pointlessness of most government programs, this is it.
In an interview with Clive James, Mr. Gilliam provides a strange response when Mr. James calls the film “a true political movie on the scale of The Battle of Algiers”. Mr. Giliam says Brazil is “one of the favorite films of the far Right in America, which drives me crazy because my intentions are just the opposite. But it’s an anti-authoritarian film, it’s against the State, and that’s what the far Right is about in America”. It’s not clear if Mr. Gilliam mistaken believes that the Right is representative of totalitarianism, or that he’s annoyed that his ideological enemies rejoice that the film reflects their values. Either way, I was disappointed to hear that. Fortunately, Mr. Gilliam is not guilty of such transgressions as child rape, so I can separate his political beliefs from his work.
No doubt certain people would point to Mr. Palin’s character, a torturer who treats his job just like one would expect an insurance salesman to, as being more indicative of the Bush Administration. Yet it is worth noting that Mr. Palin is merely a cog in the machine, required to do what the government has assigned him to do, lest he find himself in the torture chair, as well. Despite holding a senior position within the “inner circle”, the Ministry of Information, we discover Mr. Palin is just as powerless within the bureaucracy as the innocent Mr. Buttle, the victim of a mistaken “invitation to assist the Ministry with certain inquiries”, which sets the film in motion.
Brazil is, indeed, a politically charged film that we can only laugh nervously at. The truth is that the bureaucratic nightmare Sam Lowry finds himself in is not at all removed from reality. It also leaves the viewer to wonder just how this government came to power in the first place. Certainly the willingness of the individual to give up personal freedom was part of the equation, and while Sam loses his fight for physical freedom, he does find freedom by becoming catatonic. He lives and thrives in his dreams. Mr. Gilliam always refers to this as a happy ending. Within the context of the film, this is certainly true.
However, while it pains me to suggest the following because I revere Mr. Gilliam’s work, it does raise the question – is Mr. Gilliam’s message that life under a totalitarian regime so utterly hopeless that we can only resort to withdrawing into our own minds to escape it? Is the true underlying message of the film that fighting the system is ultimately fruitless?
The beauty of great cinematic works such as Brazil is that Mr. Gilliam can explicitly detail what his intentions were, and yet viewers can find their own interpretation that may even contrast with that of the filmmaker’s. It is this gift that is to be truly championed – the power of individual thought to assign whatever message we choose to a film.
It is also a testament to Mr. Gilliam’s individual tenacity that the film finally found its audience. In that, we are all fortunate, indeed.