Pulling Focus: Brazil (1985)
“[Brazil] is a film that bears watching again and again and again. It’s so packed with detail, it’s funny and so political. It’s just a perfect film I think.”
– Ben Wheatley, director (Kill List, Free Fire)
Somewhere in the twentieth century
For American-born British filmmaker, animator, and comedian Terry Gilliam, the 1985 dystopian satire Brazil was his watershed. Prior to this strange sci-fi spectacle Gilliam’s career was largely monopolized by his membership in the beloved British comedy troupe Monty Python, and post-Brazil he became, for better or worse, synonymous with the respectability of a stubborn and persistent visionary.
“The original title of Brazil was ‘1984½’. Fellini was one of the greats gods and it was 1984, so let’s put them together.”
– Terry Gilliam
It can’t happen here
Unfolding in a time and place “somewhere in the twentieth century” there’s all too much that is identifiable and familiar with the abstract and apocryphal totalitarian state that our pained protagonist, civil servant Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce, brilliant) slogs in. Part Kafkaesque quandary and part full-on fantasy, here even the tiniest of bureaucratic admin mistake, like a typo, can wring certain doom for the plebeian cogs.
Gilliam and his brilliant production designer Norman Garwood gave Brazil a retro-futurist look––one that would later go on to inspire the steampunk subculture––wherein an atemporal farrago of the recognizable and the irregular give the film a startlingly contemporary sheen. And you better believe this visual aesthetic caught on with creatives like a house on fire.
The Coen Brothers (particularly 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy), French duo Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (especially 1991’s Delicatessen and 1995’s The City of Lost Children), and more recently Mexico’s Isaac Ezban (2015’s The Similars) are just a sampling of those moved by Brazil’s sci-fi noir lilt.
The cosmology of Brazil is somehow subsumed with Stalinist articles of faith, fascism, English ideas of the Establishment circa 1940s, elements of 1950s cold war paranoia, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, and presumably, Gilliams own irrational fear of ducting.
“[Brazil] is the most potent piece of satiric political cinema since Dr. Strangelove.”
– Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“Doesn’t it bother you, the things you do at Information Retrieval?”
Sam Lowry is an intermediate functionary of a massive, monolithic, and utterly insensitive governmental institution described in Gilliam’s own words as a sort of “Walter Mitty meets Franz Kafka,” and one that’s also, of course, recognizably Orwellian.
But where Orwell’s Airstrip One setting demands a vicious and severe state surveillance, Gilliam’s fictional dystopian Weltanschauung isn’t so well-oiled. In fact, the institutions that govern in Brazil are about as tip top as the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia in Duck Soup (1933).
Much of this imagined future world doesn’t even work and the story being told owes it all to a farcical fuck up. When a squashed bug plops into a printer an arrest warrant meant for terrorist/folk hero Archibald “Harry” Tuttle (Robert De Niro) is instead issued, not to Mr. Tuttle, but rather unoffending Mr. Buttle (Brian Miller).
The investigation into this mishap will ensnare Samas he rushes to meet Buttle’s widow, Veronica (Sheila Reid), for some routine follow up and also run-in with beguiling neighbour Jill Layton (Kim Greist).
Though the ingredients are there for a strange procedural tale, Gilliam is far more interested in Lowry’s imaginary world. See, Sam regularly enjoys maudlin and mysterious flights of fantasy––each memorably scored by Geoff Muldaur’s whimsical take on Ary Barroso’s “Aquarela do Brasil” title song––wherein Sam is an angelic knight/superhero warrior.
In these dream sequences some of Gilliam’s famous Pythonesque animations are made manifest as Sam fisticuffs giant beasts––there’s also nods to Japanese kaiju films––all in the hopes of rescuing a dream girl who’s a dead ringer for Buttle’s dreamy next door dame, Jill.
Between Sam’s Shangri-la land of milk and honey and the grimy reality of the dilapidated utilitarian city that seems to be perpetually broken, there’s much to marvel at and amuse. But does it all add up?
“The reaction was very polarized; there was no middle ground. They either thought [Brazil] was fantastic, or terrible, awful, unwatchable.”
– Terry Gilliam
Ignorance is strength
Gilliam’s previous directorial efforts included the slapstick fantasy of Jabberwocky (1977), and the cartoonish fantasy Time Bandits (1981), and though very enjoyable and engaging, these films lacked the drama and daring of Brazil. Compared to those earlier works, nothing about Brazil was light weight or ill-considered.
Much of Brazil functions like a fever dream of freakish eccentricity (Katherine Helmond, sublimely hilarious as Sam’s plastic surgery plagued and youth-obsessed mother Ida, who also has a fetish for shoe-shaped hats and matching outfits), beastly black humor (Michael Palin’s Jack Lint is the friendliest torturer you’ll ever have the misfortune of meeting), and eerily authentic depictions of unethical regimes and power structures (Information Retrieval makes no bones about billing victims and their families for labor and electricity spent on their agonizing torture and/or executions).
Between Sam’s cruel and clueless paper-pushing middle-management bonehead of a boss, the rash Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm, excellent), the frightening “family man”/Dr. Mengele-style interrogator/torturer Jack Lint (Palin), the shifty-eyed heating engineer Spoor (Bob Hoskins), and the trickster archetype and wanted enemy of the state Tuttle (De Niro), it’s not surprising that Sam is forever vanishing into his world of daydreams and damsels. At times for Sam there’s very little to differentiate the heroes from the villains, at least as far as sheeny surfaces are concerned.
“Terry and I both felt that it’s a cliché and possibly a sort of absurd generalization to think that all evil people look evil and they have scars on their faces and go ‘heh-heh-heh’ and all that. We felt that very often the most dangerous people are the ones who appear most plausible and most charming. So we set about the idea of playing Jack Lint as someone who was everything that Jonathan Pryce’s character wasn’t: he’s stable, he had a family, he was settled, comfortable, hard-working, charming, sociable—and utterly and totally unscrupulous. That was the way we felt we could bring out the evil in Jack Lint.”
– Michael Palin
“Where would we be if we didn’t follow the correct procedures?”
There’s been a lot of lip service paid at the time and over the years over Gilliam’s fight for final cut of the film––the director’s original cut was a fat 142 minutes long with a downer of an ending––which reached a sort of nexus when Gilliam placed a full-page ad in Variety ribbing Universal’s Sid Sheinberg to release his movie.
The film in limbo, next the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award Brazil “Best Picture” and this at last prompted a release of the film, though in a truncated form not approved by Gilliam.
Not unlike Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) before it, Brazil became one of those smart and sophisticated sci-fi films with differing versions, some so vastly changed as to be almost completely contrasting in meaning and presentation. Gilliam’s 142 minute director’s cut was dropped for a startlingly unfamiliar ninety-four-minute version from Universal (which was shown on cable TV only) and a compromised re-edit that ran 131 minutes (and was released theatrically in North America).
All told some five cuts of the film are out there, with Gilliam’s aforementioned 142 minute version being the definitive and on target edition.
“Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a jaunty, wittily observed vision of an extremely bleak future, is a superb example of the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas, even solemn ones.”
– Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Return I will to old Brazil
When Brazil lurches towards its inevitable denouement, journey’s end at first feels like a crowded jumble. There’s a funeral for one of Ida’s similarly surgery-obsessed friends (excessive cosmetic surgery complications were the cause), and Ida herself has, much to Sam’s chagrin, never looked younger.
From this procession of desistance––closure comes for most of the film’s artfully askew subplots––a bleak finish appears. Sam, his mind breaking under Jack’s clinical persecution, takes our tale into a final twist that would, let’s say, give Ambrose Bierce a bow.
Ridiculous one minute, sentimental the next, and hilarious without pause, the film and its creation rather boastfully festooned Gilliam a cult hero on his own terms. For me and his many fans he’s been a greater bastion of weirdness and capricious dark fantasy ever since. And as for Brazil, has there ever been a more magnificent, slap-happy, and error-infused escapist destination? No, there has not.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.