Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Brazil has often been explained as George Orwell’s 1984 played as a comedy, and that is not too far off. I don’t think the art deco world of the film is as authoritarian as 1984, but the flow of disinformation is just as crucial to the narrative. Brazil presents a prophecy of the world we live in now where the specter of faceless terrorism is used to cow people into apathy. The power is not sleek and sharp but buffoonish, making fatal errors and killing innocent people. But the stratified class system and a fear of being targeted if you speak up keeps the ordinary person docile.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level government employee who processes mounds of paperwork for the labyrinthine bureaucracy. He often daydreams of being a winged knight in shining armor, rescuing an ethereal damsel while the obstacles of his mundane life manifest as villains. An error happens that leaves an innocent man dead, and Lowry is sent to give a compensation check to the widow. While visiting the tenement apartment, he glimpses Jill, a woman that exactly resembles the lady from his dreams. Jill has been labeled as a terrorist by the government over her insistence on helping the widow. Sam begins to see his visions and reality blend together as he pursues Jill, trying to convince her their destinies are intertwined.
I’ve seen Brazil probably more than a dozen times, and it is one of my favorite movies. My read of the film is very different now than it was the first time I saw it as a sophomore in college. The 1984 comparisons are a little misleading, and I think what Gilliam and his co-writers were getting at was the sleepy apathy with which the masses accept authoritarian rule. There is a lot of Federico Fellini running through the picture, the indulgence in the beautifully grotesque. At one point, the working title was 1984 ½, a reference to the legendary Fellini film.
The aesthetics of the film are a combination of art deco and the scale of fascist architecture. Spaces are large yet mostly empty, creating towering ceilings. Gray is the most common color with no effort put into the flourishes of anything. The most interesting element is the convoluted technology used throughout homes and offices. The most common example of this is the tiny computer screens that have large square magnifying glasses in front of them. There’s a subplot involving Lowry’s malfunctioning air conditioning, which he attempts to get fixed by the book through officially sanctioned repairmen who only show up and create more problems as they unpack the seemingly endless tubes and wires that fill the walls like veins.
Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro) is a terrorist who specializes in sneaking into people’s homes and repairing things for them, upending the sanctioned system. The writers are quite prescient in this manner because Apple has gone to court to block people from being able to repair their own Apple products. The desire of a corporatocracy to inhibit the people’s ability to repair, rebuild, and reconfigure is plaguing our modern life. Proprietary design has ground so much to a halt, for instance, Monsanto has patented their seeds by making genetic alterations to them. If farmers try to harvest seeds on their own, Monsanto has sued them, claiming it’s a form of theft.
The film’s biggest problem is that for as long as it is over two hours, it moves too quickly in the early moments and has so much going on with numerous subplots and supporting characters. The third act of the picture tries to wrap everything up nicely but collapses into a distorted mess. That said, the very final scene and a shot of the film is perfection, taking us out on the most bittersweet and tragicomic of notes. Like all good science fiction, Brazil is much less about some possible future than an examination of the present through some fantastical window dressing.
I think the key to understanding the movie lies in the dynamics between Lowry and Jack Lint (Michael Palin). Lowry is a mess, aimless daydreamer always trying to grasp for the world that might be rather than what is and often ending up melancholy. Lint plays things by the book, has a wife and children, enjoys his work, and is a monstrous villain who thinks he is Lowry’s friend. When you are someone that pushes against the accepted hegemonic structures, you will likely end up in Lowry’s state, feeling broken and defeated. It’s disturbing with how much regularity those who give conse