Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Classic “Brazil”

Terry Gilliam has a reputation in the world of moviemaking as, well, a bit of a lunatic. His films are utterly unique, bereft of the Hollywood norms and usually awash with mad ideas. The excellent 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are wonderful pieces of cinema, showing that Gilliam, for all his idiosyncrasies, can make a cracking good film. Of course, his work is not always so successful; his productions have been dubbed “cursed” on many occasions, from Heath Ledger passing away during the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to the numerous foul-ups associated with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (flash floods, a severe injury to the leading man, jet fly-overs and many other problems). The phrase “troubled production” has not been used so frequently in connection with a director since Werner Herzog made movies with his muse/nemesis Klaus Kinski.

1985′s Brazil is, for many, Terry Gilliam’s greatest triumph. A production with a nearly miraculous lack of catastrophes by Gilliam’s standards, its plot follows low-level government employee Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) life in a dystopian future England. Surrounded by a limitless swarm of identical co-workers and machinery, Lowry escapes his monotonous existence in fantastical dreams where he finds himself clad in angelic armour, saving the life of an unknown woman (Kim Greist). Upon seeing Jill Layton (that’s her name) in the real world while correcting a clerical error that has caused the death of the wrong man, he becomes fixated on her, and attempts to make his dreams a reality by wooing her. However, this becomes a kind of obsession with him, and Sam drops everything in the name of love . . .

So far, the story-line might sound like a fantasy/romantic comedy, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Gilliam’s film is, at its heart, a pointed satire condemning the bureaucracy that the director clearly detests. Every office is dull and grey, day-to-day life is a banal repetition of routines. Sam is entranced by Jill because she offers a break from the mundane, just as Robert De Niro’s Harry Tuttle, the renegade heating engineer-cum-terrorist, is a charming and thrilling individual Sam cannot help but admire. Gilliam draws on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to create his dystopian world, everything metallic and the people nearly robotic, but eschews the occasionally punishingly slow pace of Lang’s classic, infusing his film instead with moments of comedy: some slapstick, some blacker than burnt toast.

From the faceless, seemingly endless tower block where Sam lives to the slumlike alleyways of “Shangri La” where he encounters Jill for the first time, the immense sets which Brazil uses are clearly crafted with a great deal of care, and they are in large part the basis for the satire on contemporary life which Gilliam’s film proffers. In addition to these carefully constructed sets, the costumes are a vital part of the world Gilliam has created. The avant-garde fashions of Sam’s mother and her narcissistic cabal of friends make Lady Gaga’s wardrobe look puritanical, and they clearly influenced Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, where the outlandish and bizarre clothing helps add depth to the French director’s world.

The cast of Brazil are a collection of characters almost as strange as their clothing. De Niro, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent and Michael Palin are all in excellent form, and despite their limited screen time, the actors create fleshed-out, eccentric and memorable characters. Pryce’s Sam is another brilliant creation, always put-upon by his boss, his family and even the workers fixing his air-conditioning. When he loses grip on the bureaucracy which is so integral to this world, he gets swept away, and Pryce conveys a sense of aimlessness and sorrow brilliantly.

Unfortunately, Greist cannot offer the same quality. In a cast so deep with talent, her average acting chops are that much more noticeable, and consequently we do force ourselves to wonder how Sam would become so infatuated with her. Brazil was only her second feature film, so it is understandable that she stumbles on screen with greats like De Niro and Bob Hoskins. Gilliam’s casting has always been somewhat erratic, and in this instance it falls short.

The second, and rather larger, problem I had with Brazil was that, for significant chunks, we have no idea what is going on. The plot and dialogue are so rapidly paced they become almost indecipherable at times, forcing us to really think long and hard after the credits have rolled in. The sheer velocity of the piece is staggering, Gilliam never allowing us to rest, and consequently some of the film’s jokes and moral points get lost in the sea of viewing. I’m sure we are meant to view this as a wider satire about the breakneck pace of modern living, but it feels more like the director needed a cup of tea and a bit of a sit down during editing.

I watched Brazil more than a week ago, and I’m still unsure about exactly what happens. A friend asked me “what’s that film all about?”, and I struggled to give an answer in less than 10 minutes. It’s a meticulously crafted movie, stocked with talent in front of and behind the lens, and full of biting satire throughout. The final 15 minutes are truly fantastic, and the film’s ending is one of the best I’ve seen. The kind of film that requires several re-watches to fully understand it, Brazil is a bit of an untidy heap at first, but after a little post-mortem it’s a really enjoyable and innovative film.

8/10: Brazil is a terrifyingly original piece of cinema, and one which shows the directorial talent Gilliam would perfect with Fear and Loathing in 1998. If anything, it’s a film too full of ideas, some of which get lost in the torrent of images the director presents us with. A truly pioneering work, with some fantastic performances, it’s not easy to digest, but it’s ultimately very satisfying.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

4 responses to “Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Classic “Brazil””

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Teia Pearson and Luis Sergio Santos, Peter Hobden. Peter Hobden said: 1 of my faves RT @escapeintolife: Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Classic “Brazil” http://bit.ly/bRCNYM <—-reviewed by Luke Grundy @OdessaTucson […]

  2. DJ Young says:

    I saw this film at age 15, when it was first released and felt like a hammer had been bashed against my head.

    This is Gilliam's 1984 – a world not just of monotony, but of constant surveillance, where everyone's every move is noted, recorded and, often, used against them. Lowry's mother is a member of this establishment, one that resembles a quiet pro-Nazi society aka England of the 1930s. Much of the aristocracy and government supported Hitler and turned a blind eye to his monstrous regime. In Brazil, 'terrorist' attacks are rampant everywhere (which everyone more or less ignores), innocent victims of the bureaucratic regime are black-bagged, removed from society never to be seen from again (though you do receive a convenient receipt for their removal). Lowry doesn't just dream of of escape, his dreams are our dreams, the need for love and freedom from the machinations of despots that prescribe how we should live.

    Lowry's world is divided into Ministries – much like the British civil service, much like Orwell's 1984 – and there can be no mistake Gilliam and his co-writers meant to point a large, bony finger at how much of Orwell's message we have ignored. The extremes we go to to preserve youth (extremes that always fail), cultural deadness, the willing handover of our privacy and security to invisible corporate entities – are all part of Gilliam's message. We have forgotten to preserve our fancies, our whimsy, our sense of adventure and the need for truth. We give up justice for the sake of so-called security. Gilliam might have been a little ahead of his time with this one – or just right on the mark.

    It's been 25 years since Brazil's release (a release that, thanks to then-Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, didn't happen. Sheinberg hated the film, wanted a happy ending pasted on but found himself outsmarted by Gilliam who flew the LA Times Critics Circle to London for a viewing – when they raved, Sheinberg caved) and time for a re-introduction to this classic. Thanks for bringing it up and hopefully, we'll see a return of great interest in Gilliam's most profound work.

  3. Darksnapper99 says:

    great review. although i’d rewatch the movie if i were you sometime. you may have missed out a great deal of the comedy throughout the film. although its not difficult to blame someone for not seeing it. its incredibly dark, absurd, and subtle. like the guys at the power plant who are supposed to be maintaining the vats and buttons, but are instead playing volleyball, with their suits on and everything no less. or how about Jack Lint coming out of his last information retrieval patient he’s finished torturing cause he couldnt get them to confess. there is blood all over his apron when he sees his daughter in his office, he merely takes off the apron and goes about playing with her as any loving family man father would. or the men all in the transport shuttle sitting down with only one person standing without a seat which so happens to be a pregnant women with one leg. and btw, Gilliam never actually read 1984. Brazil is highly comedic and funny as hell if you like dark humor. but whats so funny and ironic about the whole movie is that everything that happens in this film happens every day today: machines that supposedly work and are hi tech still dont prevent us from having to fill out numerous forms to do the simplest task, service-men who seem like people trying to make your life hell are merely nice people at the core who are only trying to do their jobs, but don’t know how to., with so many departments in burreacracies, people can easily not account for their own faults and try to blame the other man. its a scary-funny if you will. not rule by menace and sinistry like in 1984, it’s rule by indiligence, inefficency, stupidity, and incompitence.

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