Great Films: Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985, UK)

Proof, as if it were really needed, that Terry Gilliam is not only one of the true visionaries of late-twentieth century cinema, but one of the finest visual directors of all-time. Brazil is a unique masterwork of style, ideas, darkness and humour, the product of a director who ever since has all too often been hampered by studio interference.

Gilliam, whether he would like the description or not, is a true auteur, as argued here. His films are fantasies, whether dystopian future visions or medieval romps, with a love for all things natural over the mechanical. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of Brazil: a nightmarish, if rather comical, world of paperwork, faceless bureaucracy and anonymous pen-pushers. Mention of this kind of dystopia immediately raises the spectre of those two pillars of twentieth-century British fiction, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Both are touchstones here; indeed the film’s working title was 1984½ (an allusion also to Fellini’s , one of the film’s other key reference points). But the world that is created here is strictly Gilliam’s, bursting at the seams with absurdities and dark humour.

It is also one of his most visually striking films. The world we enter is a grey, lifeless metropolis, evoking that of Fritz Lang, as well as Godard’s future-noir Alphaville. Inside, the rooms within houses are filled with malfunctioning futuristic appliances, and filled with large, menacing looking ducts, presumably required to maintain these conveniences’ manfunctionality. These ducts are omnipresent; well hidden in the more well-to-do homes, but intrusively hanging and sticking out in the poorer homes. Elsewhere, a restaurant’s menu offers a wide variety of exotic foods, but they all arrive as gaudily-coloured blobs ungainly dolloped on a plate.

At the centre of it all is Sam Lowry, a low-level worker in the bureaucratic government machine, whose dreams of flight and romance are at odds with his drab, routine day-to-day life. When his well-connected mother procures him the offer of a promotion, he initially turns it down, contented not to work his way up the metaphorical greasy pole. However, a chance encounter with someone resembling the woman he sees in his dreams encourages him to take the offer, hoping it can lead him to her.

The bare bones of the setup perhaps seem to offer a love story, but the film fails to satisfactorily deliver on this; there is little real chemistry between Sam and Jill, the woman he pursues, and we are never entirely convinced of whether Sam is in love with the real Jill or his idealised dream image of her. There is real ambiguity to this side of the film, which makes the recut “Love Conquers All” version, discussed below, all the more bizarre.

As well as this ambiguity, it is also difficult to quantify where the real ‘evil’ in the film lies. There is no personification of a “baddie”; 1984 had its Big Brother, though more of an abstract concept rather than an actual person. The real evil present in the film is shown to be the indifference of ordinary people to each other, and their subservience to the bureaucratic machine. A torturer, a perfectly cast Michael Palin, is shown to be a respectable, affable family man; while he conducts his business, his receptionist casually transcribes the screams coming from the room, totally ambivalent to what she is listening to. At every level of bureacracy, there is at best indifference and at worst complete disregard to common humanity. In the background to this, there is also the spectre of an ongoing terrorist campaign against the government. Explosions kill and injure ordinary people, a seemingly futile act of protest against the system. This adds another level of moral ambiguity to the film, throwing further doubt on the ides of a struggle between good-versus-evil.

Roger Ebert, the prominent American critic, criticised the film for its “lack of discipline”, a charge often levelled at Gilliam’s films. Whilst it is true that the narrative structure is weak at times, and that Brazil is perhaps 15-20 minutes too long (again, something that can be charged at much of the director’s work), it is informative to consider the recut version that was released in the US. Known as the “Love Conquers All” version, it runs to 94 minutes, a full 48 minutes shorter than the European cut, with a heavily modified narrative structure and ending, cuts which Gilliam refused to make himself, fearing artistic compromise. The resulting cut is a travesty, akin to the butchering of Once Upon a Time in America, and if there is the choice between this or the perhaps overlong director’s vision, choosing the latter is a no-brainer.

One of Brazil‘s great strengths lies with the talented crew; Gilliam assembled a fantastic collection of actors, many of whom like Bob Hoskins, Robert De Niro, Jim Broadbent, Ian Lavender and Ian Holm were confined to brief cameo roles. In casting Jonathan Pryce and Kim Griest in the leads, avoiding big star names, he achieves a sense of intrigue and ambiguity in the characters. The set design is also a triumph, as is the superb music by Michael Kamen, who had also recently scored the superb David Cronenberg chiller The Dead Zone. The cinematography is at times stunning, a credit to Gilliam’s frequent collaborating DP Roger Pratt. We feel as if within an epic, faceless dystopia, with its endless corridors, spiralling skyscrapers and gargantuan torture chambers. But also on show is Gilliam’s mastery of deep-focus. The restaurant scene is a particularly magnificent example of this: observe the seemingly innocuous characters in the background, and witness the director’s microscopic attention to detail.

Another of the triumphs of the film is its many subtle references to some of the greats of cinema history, perhaps attempting to show the medium to be the antithesis of the stale, lifeless machinery of bureacracy. There are two major allusions; firstly to Akira Kurosawa’s great masterpiece of pathos, Ikiru, in which a dying bureaucrat tries to find meaning to his life by fighting the machinery of government to get a children’s playground built. The second is Fellini’s 8½; one of the opening shots of sky is almost identical to an early shot in that film, and Sams’ confusion of his dream world and reality is akin to the Marcello Mastroianni character, Guido, in the Fellini film. Littered about the film are countless other nods, some more subtle than others, to other great films; i can spot The Third Man, Battleship Potemkin, M, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, Casablanca, and The Trial. I’m sure there are many more. Gilliam is a cinephile, and i’m sure couldn’t resist paying homage to his spiritual ancestors in this, his masterwork.

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