directed by Terry Gilliam
(Universal, 1985)

You know, it's strange sometimes what can stick in your memory where movies are concerned. For instance, whenever someone mentions Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the first thing that leaps to my mind is not the amazing story, the fantastic art direction, the great acting or Gilliam's impeccable direction -- no, it's that damned theme song, every time! Of course, then I think about the rest of it, and I'm all right again ... but I just know I'll never escape that song for as long as I live. Anyway, on to more germane blathering:

Ex-Python animator Gilliam has done several great films (Time Bandits, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas), but Brazil remains his greatest work, an existential masterpiece that gets better every time you watch it. The look of the film was heavily influenced by German Expressionist classics such as Metropolis and (to a lesser degree) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; the story is equal parts Orwell's 1984, Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron and Chaplin's Modern Times -- all tales of monolithic beauracracies/technocracies that either devour or threaten to devour the story's protagonists. (And, in a frightening case of life imitating art, Brazil itself was nearly never released by commerce-driven, blockbuster-minded, feel-good-hungry Universal Studios. Apparently this was because a personal artistic vision, and an allegorical statement about a cold corporate world devouring the individual spirit, just wouldn't play in Peoria. Gilliam actually had to go behind Universal's back to prove them wrong, and eventually had to take them to court to prevent them recutting Brazil with a different ending! And they said it could never happen here....)

The film centers around one Sam Lowry, a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Information Retrieval, who alternates his life of anonymous drudgery with flights of wild fantasy, where he is a warrior-angel with wings of metal, flying through clouds to kiss his goddess-like love. Jonathan Pryce, as Lowry, is a revelation; he brings the same quiet dignity to his everyman role that Jimmy Stewart brought to George Bailey -- and if you don't believe me, compare the two performances someday and see if I'm wrong.

Anyway, Lowry is happy with his life -- he thinks -- and not only does he prefer his unremarkable existence, he actually goes out of his way to avoid the promotions arranged for him by his youth-obsessed mother (Katharine Helmond, in an absolutely delightful performance). Sam would be perfectly happy to continue on in this fashion the rest of his life, one feels -- until one fateful day, when a bug quite literally gets into the computers, the letter B is substituted for the letter T and the government's jackboots arrest an innocent man. This man's neighbor (played winningly by Kim Griest) goes to report this false arrest -- and Sam Lowry discovers that she is, quite literally, the girl of his dreams. What follows is a comic tragedy of errors, as Sam tries to find out who she is, win her heart and live out his dreams of a truly happy life.

It's not for the faint of heart, this movie. For while it's a very funny, brilliantly conceived satire, it's also incredibly dark. There is not a moment in this movie that does not have its own unsettling satirical twist -- such as a friend of Sam's mother, equally youth-obsessed, whose plastic surgeries keep going more and more disastrously wrong. Every successive scene she's in finds her wearing more and more bandages, and it produces the very definition of nervous laughter. Then there is the claustrophobic nature of every single mode of transport in the film -- it's Sam's mini-mini-mini-mini-car or the cagelike trains that take people back and forth through the city (both put me in mind of Sting's great line from the song "Synchronicity II," "Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes....").

But one of the best examples of this is the running gag/subplot about the electronics in Sam's apartment being on the fritz. The problem is fixed illegally by a mysterious stranger (whose identity, as well as that of the actor who plays him, is best left unrevealed to those who haven't seen the movie) -- but all this does is cause Sam trouble with the legitimate repairmen, who proceed to make Sam's life miserable. They rip the guts out of every piece of machinery in the place (and a lot of it does indeed look like guts), and leave Sam's life in complete chaos, reflecting the chaos currently overtaking the rest of Sam's life as well. These moments are where the movie really hits its stride; the apartment scene in particular achieves a series of symbolic images which not only reflect the beauracracy-gone-mad macrocosm of the rest of the movie, but also suggest Jonah trapped in the belly of the beast.

I could go on and on (in fact, I have been) -- one of the problems in reviewing a film like Brazil is that it is so very rich, it is almost impossible to describe that richness in a short space. I haven't even touched upon half of the great moments in this movie, such as the memorable and inventive dream sequences, which not only reflect but sometimes even poke fun at the main story. Then there is the department-store bombing, where the story itself is exploded and put back together, and the revelation of this moment is one of the best scenes in the movie.

And what about Michael Palin, cast brilliantly against type as Jack, Sam's friend who works as an inquisition-style torturer? Jack is the Compleat Beauraucrat, both the heavy of the piece and the counterpoint to Sam Lowry's closet anti-establishment character. Jack is so dedicated to his job that the death of his subjects brings him neither pain nor joy -- it's simply a workaday fact. Jack is so much a part of this homogenous world that he gives everybody identical Christmas presents. He also has three identical daughters whose names he can't get straight, and who seem completely oblivious to what Daddy does for a living.

Palin's performance here is funny and menacing all at once -- your first sight of him in his torturer's gear, complete with evil "baby-face" mask, practically hits you like a physical blow, and his matter-of-fact attitude will do much the same. Palin should have been nominated for an Oscar for this performance ... and so should Gilliam himself have been similarly honored for his tremendous directing job.

I mentioned the richness of this film; Gilliam is juggling a lot of symbols, storylines, themes and characters around, and he doesn't drop a one. Then there is also Gilliam's brilliant eye for composition; every shot in Brazil is meaningful in one way or another and contributes to the film as a whole.

One shot in particular has always stayed with me: the matronly old woman walking her dog, and the shot of the dog walking away from the camera. We see that the dog's -- jeez, how can I say this politely? -- rear-end has been taped over. It's almost a throwaway gag, but it is also symbolic of the tight-sphinctered world in which Sam Lowry exists. Like I said, Gilliam doesn't miss a trEND.

book review by
Jay Whelan

20 November 2010

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