Running time: 2h 12min
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam (screenplay by), Tom Stoppard (screenplay by)
Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro
Terry Gilliam, the American Monty Python, is one of the more interesting directors of recent decades. While his movies are not always successful commercially or critically, he has a unique style, utilizing fantasy and comedy (particularly dark humour), and a penchant towards the absurd, which certainly sets his filmography apart from mainstream Hollywood. Brazil is perhaps his most imaginative and ambitious film, and it is widely regarded as a classic – some (English film critic Mark Kermode, for one) list it among their favourite films ever made. Despite its apparent appeal and recognition, I have always found Brazil a mixed bag – the film has great scenes and ideas, but the execution is far from perfect. It is 2021 and we are living in a mad timeline, so why not revisit the dystopic and nightmarish Brazil, 36 years after its release.
Brazil is set in a bureaucratic hellscape of concrete that is void of any soul, where there is a proper form and procedure for everything imaginable. Except when there is not, which will likely result in disaster for those unfortunate involved. If there is an error in the system, it is certain that the bureaucrats will not recognize, be able, or be willing to address it. Proper paperwork is the religion to live by in this society. The rule of law is strict: dissidents are tortured and eliminated by the state. Not everyone is content with the state of affairs – terrorists are a constant nuisance to the ruling elite and the upper class. The main method of annoyance employed by the freedom fighters is explosives – they disrupt fancy dinners and shopping sprees with their pesky bombs, which the survivors seem to hilariously ignore as well as they can. I have still not read Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the comparison to Gilliam’s Brazil is, from what I understand, apt.
The main character of Brazil is a low-level bureaucrat named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who apparently has no life outside of the office. His mother Mrs. Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond) is a wealthy and influential socialite, which makes him privileged, but he prefers to not take advantage of family connections to advance in the hierarchy of the bureaucracy – or in his love life. Sam is quite good at his job, unlike his unmotivated co-workers, who seemingly avoid work like the plague, but the work cannot satisfy him fully – he dreams and fantasizes about heroism, love, and fulfilment, something more meaningful and romantic than his dull existence as a cog in the machine. By chance, or perhaps by fate, Sam meets moderately attractive truck driver Jill (Kim Greist), who is having trouble with the bureaucracy, and is also the spitting image of the woman of his vivid dreams. Awkwardly he sets out to win her heart, because he is convinced that he is in love with her. Along the way Sam meets Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), plumber and suspected terrorist. Jill is also possibly involved with illegal activities, and this leads Sam to put his career, status, and even life at risk in the pursuit of love and meaning.
Sam would like to be the hero of his story – bravely facing dragons to rescue the damsel in distress. This is represented by the dream sequences in which he time and time again tries to save the damsel from danger. The contrast between his fumbling real self and the brave shining knight of the dream is quite stark. Sam starts to lose his grip on reality, and dream/nightmare merges with reality. He ends up fighting the system that he was part of, and that leads him to his doom, as rebellion is a dangerous endeavour, especially for a fool. It is harsh to call the protagonist a fool, especially one with “pure” motives, but in Brazil, that is the case. Sam is naive and idealistic behind his grey exterior – when he gets the chance for excitement and love with Jill and the fight for freedom, he jumps willingly and recklessly into the fray. It is as if he does not realize or does not care about the possible dire consequences of his actions – which is natural, since he is starting to live out his dreams/fantasies for real. One of the problems I have with Brazil is that I never really found myself caring about Sam – he is just not that likable, interesting, or smart. The same goes for Jill, and the more interesting Harry Tuttle is barely in the movie. It is interesting and sometimes very fun to watch the absurd events unfold, but I never truly cared about the characters or what happened to them – at least until the very end.
Pryce is good, but not great, while Greist, and De Niro are alright in their roles. I enjoyed Helmond as Sam’s socialite mother and Michael Palin as affable family man/state torturer the most, but that might be as much (or more) due to the writing as the acting. Everyone else is at least okay. There are many minor characters in the film, notably including Ian Holm as Sam’s timid boss.
Brazil is weird. That is one of its main attractions, and almost goes without saying considering it is a Gilliam film. Visually the film is all over the place, the world is a mix of 1950s New York with dashes of dystopian science fiction, along with medieval/samurai/fantasy/horror imagery in the dream segments. The filmmaking is creative in many ways, which shows in the camerawork. The visual design is imaginative and ambitious, but it has dated poorly in some respects; for example, the computers and other technological gadgets look ridiculous these days – worse than in Alien (1979) or Blade Runner (1982), for example. Though, to be fair, Alien and Blade Runner attempted to be more realistic in their design, while being inhibited by the technology of the time. The lack of realism is a relatively minor “flaw” for Brazil, which does not take itself too seriously, but it is worth mentioning – you can not watch it as something completely plausible or believable – in as far as those terms can be meaningfully applied to a film like this. If you can overcome that limitation, the ideas, the world, and the humor might win you over much more readily.
Brazil has great moments and ideas, but in my opinion the moments do not come together to form a cohesive whole that works all the way through. The ending is spectacularly brilliant, but what comes before that varies drastically in quality. The problem is mostly the script, which tries to jam too many different things into a 2-hour film. Meaningless, jarring, and occasionally overly slow segments hinder the film’s effectiveness and enjoyability. The romance plot between Sam and Jill is handled poorly; at first Jill sternly rejects Sam’s awkward and cringy advances, but then she just gives into it, seemingly with no good reason. The framework for the story works, and the romance is a good catalyst to set Sam against the system, but the details could have been constructed more compellingly and believably. The (quite dark) comedy is hit and miss: at times it works perfectly, but sometimes it achieves only groans. Some scenes just feel off, where something is just slightly too strange, too slow, too jarring, or too incongruous with the rest of the movie, and that is a severe handicap to overcome. Credit to the parts that do work, especially the ending, for they carry the rest of the film and make it something worth watching and writing about almost 40 years after it was made.
It is a bit difficult to rate Brazil. It is a film that requires specific conditions for it to be enjoyable – if a dystopian nightmare can be called enjoyable. For Brazil to truly shine, one needs to pay attention, and not be put off by either Gilliam’s style or the subject matter. The execution is flawed, but it is a very interesting and ambitious film, with a truly great ending. Brazil is absolutely worth watching for anyone interested in cinema, but it is not casual viewing.
Rating: 7.5 / 10
Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 2?
Would I want to rewatch this film? Quite possibly at some point