Jonathan Pryce (Sam Lowry), Robert De Niro (Harry Tuttle), Katherine Helmond (Ida Lowry), Michael Palin (Jack Lint), Kim Greist (Jill Layton), Jim Broadbent (Dr. Jaffe), Bob Hoskins (Spoor), Peter Vaughn (Mr. Helpmann), Ian Holm (Mr. Kurtzmann)
“A bureaucrat in a retro-future world tries to correct an administrative error and himself becomes an enemy of the state. “ – synopsis from IMDb.com.
Like most nerds of my stripe I am a fan of the Monty Python comedy troupe and the various things they have done. When the group folded 1974 all the men went their separate ways and had fairly unremarkable careers. John Cleese was easily the most succesful out the gate but his career quickly mutated into grotesque walk-on roles in awful comedies. Of all the members of this UK film troupe it is Terry Gilliam, the one American member, who went on to have the most interesting if not necessarily the most successful career post-Python.
Terry Gilliam’s first film fully removed of the Python influence (with the exception of fellow troupe-member Michale Palin in a supporting role) was 1985’s Brazil. Gilliam has said that Brazil was based on 1984, or at least his interpretations of 1984 having not read the book (or presumably seen the film.) With this film Gilliam has created the most British dystopia ever; one filled with utilitarian concrete buildings spiderwebbed with an absurd amount of ductwork, mounds of paperwork, government spokespeople referring to terrorists as bad sports, a system so choked with Bureaucracy it no longer works, and a menacing shadow government that is barely acknowledged by the people who sit around glumly in restaurants and finish their dinners as emergency staff tend to the wounded from the terrorist bombing that just happened two tables away. Oppressive government? Endless paperwork and line-standing? Stiff upper lip? Check, check, check.
Our hero is Sam Lowry, a government worker on the lowest rung of the ladder who intends to stay there as it attracts the least amount of attention. Sam’s goal is to get through life without being noticed, which is at odds with the expectations and machinations of his mother who insists he get a promotion to a higher level of government. Sam is content to live in a fantasy world in his head where he has a recurring dream of being some sort of winged hero out to save a beautiful woman with whom he is deeply in love.
One day when attempting to deliver a refund check to a widow, whose husband was wrongly abducted and interrogated by the government (a mistake which caused his death), he sees the woman of his dreams alive and in the flesh. The woman’s name is Jill and she has been trying to get justice for the widow’s husband, an act which has ruffled some feathers amongst the members of the government who do not wish to admit they are wrong. Not wanting Jill to come to harm at the hands of his torturous interrogator friend Jack, Sam sets out to help Jill only causing more trouble as he goes along.
I admire a great deal about Brazil but I think the thing I admire most about it is that it’s really about nothing. The problem is a clerical error, which admittedly does get a man killed and would probably get Jill killed without Sam’s intervention, but Sam gets involved and the film takes on the feeling of some great conspiracy story along the lines of film noir detective story. Really it’s just about a shiftless nobody escalating a bad situation into a much worse situation and all the idiotic things he does along the way.
The two films that I believe share the greatest kinship story-wise with this movie are the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading, two stories that borrowed the framework of detective stories and political thrillers to ultimately tell stories about imbeciles bringing about an escalating series of terrible events cause by nothing more than simple misunderstandings and poor forethought.
Brazil is a dystopian story but the dystopia element barely plays into the film beyond its ability to ratchet up the level of danger to the main character and his presumed love. This is helped along by rogue heating technician Harry Tuttle, played by Robert De Niro, who behaves in the manner of a revolutionary but seems to have no interest in doing anything more than fixing ventilation systems without the need for filing endless paperwork.
This is a movie that mocks the romanticism of the mundane, even the relationship at the center of this movie is based on foolish dream logic. Sam has seen Jill in his dreams and in his dreams he loves her, so he presumes that he loves her in real life and she him. But Sam isn’t a hero like his dream self and his nightmarish reality is much more intimidating than his brightly lit dreams. Spoiler alert until after the next picture.
In fact it’s this foolish romanticism that is ultimately Sam’s and Jill’s undoing. Sam simply stops doing his job in his pursuit of Jill and continues to flagrantly break the laws in his attempts to save her, if anything he expedites the process of Jill’s death and drags himself down in the process. The film ends with Sam being interrogated by Jack only to be saved by Tuttle and whisked away by Jill (having survived when he has been assured that she was killed in the process of his arrest) and taken to the English countryside to live happily ever after. Only it soon pulls out to reveal that this is all a fantasy in Sam’s head brought on by the shock of Jack’s torture techniques.
Sam hums the film’s theme song (and basis for its title) as Jack walks out, leaving him to grin idiotically into the middle distance having gone completely insane. This ending was the cause of a big fight between Gilliam and the studio that eventually was ended when the director screened his cut of the film at a college, getting it attention from several film critics and forcing the studio’s hand to air Gilliam’s cut rather than their more rose tinted “love conquers all” version. While the director’s cut certainly depicts a bleaker outcome, it still comes with a note of optimism. Sam’s life was a living hell and the only joy he seemed to get in life were through his dreams, now Sam lives in a heaven of his own design locked away from his horrible reality. In a world gone mad who’s better off than a man too crazy to care?
In a very Gilliamesque fashion the movie is both straight-faced hilarity and disturbing horror rolled into one very odd whole, but like other Gilliam movies it’s endlessly charming because of it. Gilliam was responsible for a lot of Python’s darker and weirder bits so he’s an old hat at marrying comedy with disturbing imagery and situations. There’s such a dry absurdist wit to this movie that I found myself laughing aloud at things that, when I think about it, are actually quite horrible. In other words this film is the culmination of my love of Monty Python.
Knowing that futuristic tales have a tendency to become dated, the director sought to design a world that has one foot in the future and one in the past. Dubbed Retro-Futuristic or Sci-Fi Noir, this general aesthetic was used to different degrees in films such as The Hudsucker Proxy, Dark City, Delicatessen, and City of Lost Children. I would also be surprised if Brazil’s bleak and dry sense of humor as well as its design aesthetics didn’t inspire a great deal of the Fallout universe.
Brazil was also part of two trilogies in Gilliam’s career, it is the middle chapter of his “Dreamer” trilogy in-between Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen but also launches his dystopia trilogy which would be continued by 12 Monkeys and finished off with Zero Theorem.
Brazil is so intricately designed and painstakingly made, darkly comic, hilariously sad, that it’s easy to miss how deceptively simple it is. This isn’t a knock on the film, it’s simplicity is its charm, but as a reviewer this leaves me with very little to talk about. This is a movie that has a very intangible depth to it that makes it very difficult for me to write about at length which frustrates me to no end because I really cannot begin to explain how much I love it. It’s an exceptional film and a nice doomsday movie to slot into your Christmas rotation with Hardware.
If you haven’t seen it, watch it! If you have seen it, watch it again! Merry Christmas (or similar winter-time celebratory period) Chewers, we’re all in it together!
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“Goddamn time traveling robots! Covering up their goddamn tracks! I hate them!”
Discuss this and other Doomsday Reels columns in the forum.