Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
What do you get when you take a little bit of George Orwell’s dystopian 1984, a pinch of noir, a healthy dose of bureaucratic nonsense, and a former animator-turned-director? It’s Terry Gilliam’s cult masterpiece, 1985’s Brazil.
Coming out of the roles of animator and occasional actor for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Gilliam sowed his directorial oats with 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he co-directed with company member Terry Jones: Gilliam took charge of the visuals and Jones focused on the actors) and 1977’s Jabberwocky (which continued to develop those visuals but needed a tighter script). You really start seeing what he could accomplish with Time Bandits (1981): it mixed elements from all of his previous work, added his own magical realism, allowed him to refine his style, and add in a little more surrealism which is in fine form in Brazil.
The film follows a low-level bureaucrat as he deals with the monotony of his life by escaping into dreams of himself as a hero trying to protect a damsel in distress. In the “real world,” he does the same with a woman who reminds him of the beautiful damsel. Jonathan Pryce plays the office drone Sam Lowry who gets in over his head. Pryce walks that fine line between sincere and hapless very well. That’s the main plot, but there’s so much at work in the film that it’s also just the tip of the iceberg. Paperwork has to be filled out before you can get anything done. And, due to the overarching bureaucracy, some repairmen decide to go off the grid and fix things on their own. In a great smaller role, Robert De Niro flexes his comedic muscles for the first time as rogue repairman Harry Tuttle. The government is after him but due to a fly in the ointment (literally) they end up arresting and detaining a Harry Buttle. This is when Sam and his department come into the picture.
Gilliam is a master world builder. With an incredibly small budget, he can create a fully-inhabited universe. Brazil is a master class on this. Using a revolutionary lens that allows for wide angle while still capturing tremendous detail without turning the whole image into a giant fish eye (think the Beastie Boys “Shake your Rump” video), he packs the screen with things to look at. His films invite multiple viewings to fully perceive everything that’s going on in each frame. And with what does he pack Brazil? A retro-future-noir style that feels ahead of its time, and — at the same time — a little behind the present. A lot of the buildings’ designs can be seen in the German expressionism in M and Metropolis, yet are also entirely comfortable in the mid 1980s. Gilliam uses technology that made high resolution monitors so small that you end up using an old magnifier to see what’s going on in the image. It’s a perfect contrast.
Gilliam clutters this slightly off-kilter world along the entire spectrum. From the design of the metropolis to the labyrinthine dream sequences, costumes, and characters; there’s a certain surreal nature to it. Like the great films of David Lynch, it doesn’t quite make sense yet makes perfect sense at the same time. You can tell that the writers of Doctor Who got inspiration from this film in their character sketch of Cassandra in Season One of the Russell T Davies revamp. David Yates, the director of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, admits that the design for the Ministry of Magic was lifted directly from this film.
Why call the film Brazil? The only references to Brazil come from the random song and musical refrains that occasionally pop up. I used to think this was just a unique way to keep the viewer off balance and insert something that doesn’t quite make sense (Monty Python was wonderful at this). But, as I got older, I realized that the name is more than just a random song: the movie is about escape into something better. Sam has vivid dreams so that we can see them with him. He can only escape his life by dreaming about something entirely different. He doesn’t have any real autonomy: he’s just a character in a film. Brazil is the middle part of what Gilliam refers to as his trilogy of imagination, which started with Time Bandits and concluded with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (both of which you should also view). Each film represents dreamers at different stages of their lives trying to work their way through their worlds. Brazil focuses on the middle-aged person. I loved the film as a child but now that I’ve hit middle age, it definitely speaks to me more. Are we content to just exist or should we strive to fight the good fight, no matter the consequences? Only you can answer that question for yourself. And, since you’re not a character in someone else’s fiction, you have the ability to do just that. Good luck, and don’t let the paperwork get you down.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD in a gorgeous Criterion release. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below: just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.