Film: Brazil

Ah, the surreal, the hilarious, the sublime darkness. The first time I saw Brazil (1985), I was a freshman screenwriting student at New York University, eighteen years old, and fucking miserable. I had a work/study job at the Bobst Library’s audio-visual center and noticed everyone checking this film out, so I gave it a go. Appropriately, I screened it with library technology that, in retrospect, wasn’t much more advanced than Terry Gilliam’s “somewhere in the twentieth century” production design in the film. Basically, there was a bank of VCRs behind a counter that we could program out to TVs in study carrels—instant streaming, 1989 style! (Except that, if I remember right, we had to pause the tape when people went to the bathroom.) This experience proved prescient, as I have spent much of my professional life since then sitting in cubes staring at screens, battling the same absurd forces that Brazil lampoons so powerfully.

Counter to many a blurb describing it as a “dystopian future,” Brazil in fact depicts a society out of time, a surreal anywhen that madly combines the fads, fashions, and technologies of numerous decades. It’s a grim, cluttered, industrious world wherein Sam Lowry (an inspired Jonathan Pryce) is a run-of-the-mill everyman, ultra-competent in his job but completely inept socially—and, secretly, rather miserable. Sam claims to want to be left alone, even as he experiences vivid dreams of himself as a powerful, winged warrior, battling evil forces in his quest to save a fair maiden in distress (Kim Greist).  Sam’s ordeal begins with a clerical error, when an arrest order for a rogue heating engineer goes out with the wrong name on it. The error causes sheer hell for Sam’s petulant, ineffectual boss Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), so Sam steps in to clean up the mess. Processing a refund check to the wrongfully accused man’s widow, he catches sight of spunky truck driver Jill Layton (Greist again)—the woman of his dreams, in the flesh, if in slightly spikier form. With his dream damsel mysteriously manifesting in reality, Sam is finally shaken from his inertia, and to track her down he finally tries to climb the corporate ladder he’s been ignoring, hoping it will provide access to the information he needs. In the process, though, he becomes entangled in heartless bureacratic gears, and embroiled in a confused struggle against the officious state forces that have long controlled his life—and casting him into a chaotic, waking nightmare.

Brazil transformed me as a cinema viewer, and more so spoke to me, coming as it did during a time of intense emotional confusion—not to mention my own, ludicrous interactions with a complex, infuriating university bureaucracy. The film’s cockeyed aesthetic and wild camera angles, combined with Gilliam’s quirky sense of humor, Tom Stoppard’s whip-smart dialogue, and an unsettlingly dreary urban atmosphere—it all struck like a jolt of artistic adrenaline, speaking to the best and worst parts of me all at once. It’s funny, quirky, cynical, bleak, unpredictable, and weirdly hopeful, a testament to the power of story as an escape from the drudgery and frustration of real life. Something about Sam Lowry spoke to me too; his hopeless muddling, his cog-in-a-machine competency, his tendency to disappear into his head for extended flights of fancy. Pryce is an unconventional hero, totally ordinary both in his weaknesses and his strengths, and therefore relatable, helped in no small part by Pryce’s manic performance. The surrounding cast is superb: Holm in particular is a riot, De Niro is perfectly stunt-cast, and Greist is a terrific sparkplug love interest (this film really should have put her on the map). Plus there’s Michael Palin, Charles McKeown, Katherine Helmond, Ian Richardson, and the rest of the pitch-perfect ensemble.

Terry Gilliam’s work can be wildly hit or miss, veering often into incoherence as visual aspiration drown out satisfying narrative. But Brazil—in an erratic, accidental-seeming way—is still a marvel after all these years. Oh, it’s imperfect, especially in its bungled handling of Sam and Jill’s eventual real-life meeting, wherein the storytelling thread nearly vanishes, illogical action-adventure filling in for believable character interactions and needed exposition. Despite its flaws, though, Brazil still sizzles after all this time, in its eye-popping look, its singular atmosphere, and its disorienting journey from mundanity to madness. I’ve been calling this my favorite film for nearly thirty-five years now, and this latest re-watch hasn’t changed my mind.

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