Brazil (1985)

Dir. Terry Gilliam. Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin

Brazil gives itself an awfully difficult task to pull off, requiring a faceless evil to fight against, a clear vision of the world of the future, and a protagonist who can both guide us through the future and hold our sympathy. It requires those primary structural elements to fully achieve its satirical ends; without them, we would only talk about Brazil as merely the greatest movie ever made on the subject of duct work.

The classic British dystopian novels, 1984 and Brave New World, both reject any central figure who might act as a supervillain of sorts. Big Brother is no more real than Santa Claus by the events of Winston Smith’s days; Brave New World turns Mustapha Mond, who is qualified by his position as a “World Controller” to fit that bill as the big bad, into more a sad encyclopedia than a godlike evil. The true baddies of those books – and, as it turns out, of Brazil – are mostly ground-level workers, people who on a battlefield would probably not rank any higher than captain. For example, O’Brien in 1984 is one of the scariest characters in modern fiction but is no more than the commandant of secret police. In Brazil, his rough counterpart is Jack Lint (Palin), who works for Information Retrieval as a torture artist, and he fits his society’s repugnant bureaucracy just as O’Brien suits his society’s all-knowing totalitarianism. And while Jack has a job that signifies what we can guess is the height of attainable professional success in the world of Brazil, he’s not the highest-ranking person we run into in the film. That belongs to a deputy minister, Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), who is never seen actually doing anything besides making public appearances. In this respect I think Brazil is a seriously successful movie, refusing to provide any larger-than-life figure who might be like the boss in a video game. Destroying the bureaucratic system in Brazil would require a meteor; a heroic individualist like John the Savage would perish as surely in the world of Brazil as he did in Brave New World. When Sam begins to challenge the system in an attempt to track down (and potentially rescue?) the woman from his dreams, it becomes clear that the scope of the bureaucracy is greater than any one man, or even any hundred or thousand men, could eliminate.

What I like about the bureaucracy of Brazil is that in virtually all cases it is just annoying, useless, and self-concerned. Indeed, it is only when Brazil finds in its bureaucracy a Thought Police sort of malevolence that the film’s universe falls in. It’s not out of the question to believe that a bureaucracy would favor a sort of prison and detainment system which is so neoliberal that it charges its prisoners fees for prison, and the death of Buttle which is the fault of a fly falling on a typewriter (it should have been “Tuttle”) is appropriately absurd. It’s a strong beginning, one which emphasizes the bureaucracy’s silent lethality; a silly mistake, a bizarre mistake, can lead to a Christmastime arrest and government murder. But the film sees a targeted malice in the Department of Information Retrieval which undercuts the satirical effectiveness of the other departments, which are great. There’s a laugh-out-loud sequence at a government information center. While the boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), looks out on the floor, there are people hustling here, there, and everywhere, picking up and dropping off papers. When he returns to his office, all activity stops immediately as everyone gathers around terminals to watch a western. Later on, Sam (Pryce), the true master of that department, comes in to help his boss. Someone tells him Casablanca is on. The Department of Works comes to fix Sam’s ducts (though “fix” is sort of a strong word). They wear hats with absolutely absurd brims, the kind that almost look normal from head on. One of them is a little pugnacious; the other one counteracts that pugnacity by repeating everything he says. Sam, who has a renegade in his apartment, manages to scare them off by telling them they need a certain form to continue. When Brazil is on form, it’s like a sci-fi version of The Government Inspector. For a movie which seems to beg comparisons to 1984Brazil simply does not do ominousness well enough to be in the same ballpark. There’s a strong implication that the terrorists the government is fighting don’t actually exist at all, and that the government is thus bombing its own citizens and real estate. But why should it, other than to make the government seem dangerous rather than endlessly incompetent? Aren’t there other ways to maintain a dangerous government than via some comically villainous plan that no one in the government could possibly keep up with? The first half of the movie is a masterful satire, and the second tosses darts at seriousness and hopes to hit.

The setting of Brazil is ugly and gray and decrepit; the production design is spot on, for the movie knows how it should look and does not deviate from that vision. The ad for ducts at the beginning of the film turns out to be more than just a joke; ducts are the signifiers of human life in this film, and they are absolutely everywhere. These are the dulling consistencies of the bureaucracy in this story, which deadens people. The most interesting thing that happens to the wealthy is a riff on plastic surgery. The working stiffs are indistinguishable from one another. Outside of Jack, who starts calling his wife “Barbara” after Helpmann calls his wife “Barbara,” no one seems to have much personality.

The problem is that not having a personality extends to our hero, too, which is something of an own goal (to borrow Mr. Helpmann’s obsession with sporting analogies) for the movie. Jonathan Pryce is a fine actor who plays Sam Lowry as someone who is sleepwalking through a life which is, by the standards of Brazil, nearly as blessed as Jack Lint’s. He is more or less satisfied with being the de facto head of his department, an absolute necessity to his clueless, terrified boss. His father was a person of some importance and his mother is well-off, with many friends in high places. What sets Sam apart from just about everyone, so far as I can tell, is that he has an imagination which doesn’t let go. Sam’s fantasy world, one that appears to him primarily in dreams, is one of flight and of a glowing woman. In it, wearing his shining breastplate and holding a short sword, he is attacked by monsters with baby masks, by a mighty metal samurai, by the ground itself holding him down. His first dream allows him to fly over the only green grass we see in the entire movie. It is not long until great gray pillars burst out of the ground. His wings are cut. He is removed from the glory of flight and instead given the task in a gray, concrete world of rescuing a beautiful woman from a wooden cage floating above him. The star of these sequences, especially the one with the samurai, is whoever did the special effects. Sam and Jill (Greist) are largely uninteresting on their own merits in the real world. Their affair is brief and pointless, and Sam’s quest to find Jill, the literal girl of his dreams, is a way for viewers to learn about Information Retrieval first and foremost. With a different ending, I still think those are non-fatal choices. Even sex as a fantasy is removed as a possibility under this government, which I think is a strong statement. But instead of a deservedly nihilistic observation, it becomes a reason to pity our main character when he has an elaborate fantasy under torture at the hands of his friend. Fantasy is our only escape; fantasy is useless; fantasy is still the best we have. If only the first two were supported in the text, this would be a more interesting movie.

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