Brazil (1985)

Review #1,406

Director:  Terry Gilliam
Cast:  Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent
Plot:  A bureaucrat in a retro-future world tries to correct an administrative error and himself becomes an enemy of the state.

Genre:  Drama / Sci-Fi
Awards:  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design
Runtime:  142min
Rating:  PG13 for some strong violence
Distributor:  Universal Studios

“Sorry, I'm a bit of a stickler for paperwork.  Where would we be if we didn't follow the correct procedures?”

I have something to confess—I didn’t like Brazil the first time I saw it, many, many years ago.  What’s with all the freaking air ducts?  That bothered me.  But I was a na├»ve young teenager with false pride then.  Not now.  Now I would like to think that I’m a cultivated cineaste (I hope). 

This is such a terrific movie, one of Terry Gilliam’s very best, and for some, his magnum opus.  It was also the battleground for one of the most infamous conflicts between director and studio, in this case Universal.  Reading about it pisses me off, but Gilliam ultimately prevailed.  The easy accessibility (thankfully!) to the director’s cut, all of 142 minutes, is a stern reminder of the need to respect an artist’s vision and craft. 

Brazil stars Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who doesn’t want promotion.  Robert De Niro and Kim Greist play supporting roles as Harry Tuttle and Jill Layton respectively.  Harry is a wanted renegade, appearing and disappearing at will, fixing air ducts as cover.  Jill, apparently Sam’s ‘dream' girl in his hallucinations, is the upstairs neighbour of a family whose lives are set for an irreversible course, thus setting the plot up for this sharp and clever anti-totalitarian work.  The less you know about how the narrative will play out, the more the film will surprise you. 

Brazil is the second of Gilliam's unofficial ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ (the other two are Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)), and certainly it is a work of great creativity and visual bravura.  The dystopian production design of a city at the brink of technological abyss—with all the unsightly air ducts, archaic buildings and inefficient computers—is a marvel, so are the film’s surreal dream sequences involving Sam as struggling hero and Jill as damsel in distress. 

Gilliam’s film is consistently dazzling, accompanied by the famous music theme by Ary Barroso (and its variations by composer Michael Kamen) that gave it its title.  What’s most fascinating is how Gilliam brings a whole slew of themes to the table, each seamlessly and effortlessly intertwined in the storytelling. 

It is first a strong and hilarious anti-bureaucratic satire; and second a critical examination of power dynamics; lastly, it also shows us the perils of materialism and the artificiality of our quest for superficial perfection—cue plastic surgery (that hides our ugly selves as human beings) and administrative ping-pong (that hides the imperfections of an authoritarian state).  This is truly a sizzler!

Verdict:  A sharp and clever anti-totalitarian work by Gilliam that is consistently dazzling, be it the creative visuals, the bureaucratic satire, or the invigorating music.


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