Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The 25: Part 23: Brazil

For, in order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary then that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment.

-GK Chesterton-

Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the right man. The Wrong Man was presented to me as The Right Man. I accepted him on good faith as The Right Man. Was I wrong?


There are films that are nightmarish and then there are films that unfold in with the relentless persistence of a nightmare.

The trouble with Brazil is the nightmare had bled over. Gilliam’s world of terrorism, torture, arrest without warrant, media manipulation, and eternal eavesdropping was looking mighty familiar by the time I first saw the film. We were all living in the world of Information Retrieval. But what I didn’t realize is that we are now all living in Sam Lowry’s world as well.

We all to one extent or another create a little world from the pieces of the big one, which we find bearable (Mine is called Things That Don’t Suck, welcome). I embraced Gilliam’s idea of freedom through solipsism. Faced with a frightening world on the horizon and a friendless existence at school, the idea of escaping inside my own head. A place were no one could touch me had a certain appeal.

Yet it is this very thing that disturbs me the most when I watch the film today. Like most truths it doubles back on itself. The inside of your own head is an escape yes, but it is also an imprisonment.

But let’s back up for a moment. As Ebert reminds us it less important what a film is about then how it is about it. And I can think of few films that get along with the “How it is about it” segment of the equation better then Brazil. It’s a masterwork of design, a sprawling parallel universe built from the ducts up with perverse nightmare logic. A film, perhaps the only one in Gilliam’s oeuvre, which has the distinctive energy of a vision fully realized.

Brazil to a certain extent functions as the most epic Monty Python sketch ever concocted. While Python exaggerated the little invisible absurdities of day to day life in order to make them unignorable Brazil presents a world in which there is nothing but absurdity no longer invisible. If there is a message that creeps up in all of Gilliam’s films it is that though chaos can be destructive, than chaos in a controlled system is unthinkably worse. The bureaucracy of Brazil has devolved into a perpetual motion machine dedicated to making everyone trapped within it as miserable as possible.

It only takes one moment of unpredictably, wonderfully envisioned by Gilliam as a literal bug in the system, for the life of our everyman, Sam Lowry, and the lives of countless others to be destroyed. Insanity becomes compound, there is one mistake, and then the gears of the system work ceaselessly to enforce it. And no one can ever say “This was a mistake.” Because if you do say that then you’re saying the system doesn’t work, and it’s much easier to get rid of you then the system.

Jonathon Pryce is one of the most capable cinematic everymen in recent memory. He’s so perfect for the role because he seems so entirely the sort of person this should not be happening to. Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent make great work from small roles, inhabiting them so well that one could be forgiven for thinking Gilliam grew them out of Petrie Dishes for the express purpose. Robert DeNiro turns in great work as Harry Tuttle the one person ever on screen who seems capable, or interested, in subverting the system and makes one wistful for the day when De Niro was such a capable pinch hitter it was scarcely worth mentioning. Perhaps most impressive is Michael Palin one of the most striking examples of the banality of evil caught on film.

The lone weak spot in the film is Kim Greist who just doesn’t have the charisma for Sam’s dream girl (and I say that as someone who has an avowed thing for tomboys). She alone doesn’t seem to inhabit the same world as her characters. The only one who doesn’t understand the reality of her situation. When she storms heedlessly into the ministry of information demanding Buttle’s release it doesn’t seem as if she is heedless and passionate in her quest for justice, it just seems as if she hasn’t read the script very carefully.

But the real star of the film is Gilliam. Whose twisted vision has never been better realized. In all honesty if ask to choose a favorite of his films, I’d probably prefer the dark puzzle box that is Twelve Monkeys and yes perhaps he need not have drowned Bob Hoskins in shit. But these end up being minor quibbles in the face of what Gilliam accomplishes. Any idiot can make images that look wild and trippy, what Gilliam does here is something much rarer. His world does not give off the feel of something exaggerated, but rather one seen clearly. It’s our world with more acute perception then our own. The important thing isn’t that Gilliam can see that horrid statue in the center of the Ministry Of Information, or the rotting baby faces who patrol its hall. Rather the troubling thing is we cannot. Brazil is not a satire; it’s damn near a Lovecraftian artifact.

We talk so much about a director’s vision, but rarely has that term seemed more appropriate then with Brazil.


Unknown said...

Yeah, I would say that this is most definitely Gilliam's masterpiece - an incredible achievement and a film that becomes more and more relevant as you wisely point out.

I appreciate it even more as a personal vision of Gilliam's after reading up on the epic struggle he went through to get his version of the film released despite the studio's best attempts to push through a more sanitized version! And so began Gilliam's struggles against the studios on almost every project thereafter (THE FISHER KING went smoothly, I believe). Gilliam poured everything he had into BRAZIL and the end result speaks for itself.

Fantastic review! I enjoyed reading it very much.

Neil Fulwood said...

I second J.D.'s opinion: fantastic review.

I have always viewed 'Brazil' as the best adaptation of '1984' that doesn't call itself '1984' ever made. In fact, for my money it evokes Orwell's horribly realistic dystopian future more effectively than Michael Radford's "official" version.

And you're absolutely right in saying it becomes more relevant with the passing of time. There's seldom a meeting I minute or a team meeting I attend at work where I don't feel the invisible presence of Michael Palin and Ian Holm, the former gloating, the latter still just as beguiled.

Unknown said...


It's interesting that you mention 1984 as Gilliam as often referred to BRAZIL as 1984 1/2 (also a reference to his fave film Fellini's 8 1/2).

Bryce Wilson said...

@ JD: Thanks for the kind words. The story behind the making does make the film all the more inspiring, I particularly like the bit about Gilliam smuggling his own film out to be screened for The Critics. Here's hoping that the stars finally align for Don Quixote.

@ Neil: Many thanks sir. I feel like 1984 almost becomes a sacred cow. Doing his own take allowed him to be much looser. And besides there's not a lot of humor in 1984. And what's Gilliam without that?

Darren said...

I'd go further than Neil and call Brazil the best 1984 adaptation ever filmed. Controversial, I know.

It's probably in my top five films, ever, and - as J.D. says - Gilliam's masterpiece.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Darren: I'd definitely agree with you. Though I honestly think that nowadays I like 12 Monkeys just a little better.

Biba Pickles said...

I love this movie, but I'm always hearing how much people dislike it because of how depressing it is.