A bonkers trip into the warped and wonderful mind of Terry Gilliam that has nothing to do with a soccer-loving country in South America, and more to do with 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece. It’s also set at around Christmas, so I think I’ll be happy to think of it as an alternative Christmas movie a la Die Hard.
It’s always fun to watch movies set in the future that got made in the pre-internet, pre-iPad times (in this case, 1985). Visually, you could describe Brazil as grimy steampunk via mid-twentieth-century technology, where everybody dresses in 1940s fashions and lives in an ugly, soulless jumble of steel and concrete. It’s not clear how much of the world still exists beyond its borders, but this particular society is ruled over by a ruthless organization called Ministry of Information, which employs a giant army of clerks to manage the never-ending stream of paperwork on everything and everyone – bureaucracy on steroids if you like. The most prominent feature of this world, apart from paper, is the convoluted system of ducts that invades every living and professional space. The Ministry also has a military arm, and a more sinister branch of bureaucrats whose job is to extract confessions and information from those considered to be deviants (and then bill them for their own interrogation). The resistance to the Ministry comes in the form of persistent terrorist attacks, which are not terribly concerned about the bystanders killed in the process. It’s a thoroughly dehumanised society in every way.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a lowly clerk in Records, the least important department in the Ministry, who is happy with his dead-end job much to the dismay of his glamorous, well-connected mother. The only indication that he craves for more than he has is a recurring dream in which Sam is a fantastical winged superhero, kinda like an angel mashed with a 70s glam rock star, soaring in the clouds and battling demonic creatures to free a beautiful blond woman imprisoned in a cage. But then, Sam’s grey life is shaken up by a series of events: the heating system in his apartment breaks down, at work he gets involved into the case of a wrong man getting arrested and tortured to death because of a spelling error, and most importantly, he gets a fleeting glimpse of a woman from his dream, in real life, who he immediately wants to pursue. Except that, unlike the quivering damsel-in-distress of his fantasy, she’s a tough and no-nonsense young woman.
Despite being set in an oppressive tyrannical regime, Brazil is hilarious and comically absurd, as well as visually inventive; I watched the short behind-the-scenes documentary that came with the DVD, and the amount of work and ingenuity put into the practical effects before the era of CGI is really impressive. While the story itself is fairly simple, the real delight is the scalding social commentary and the amount of small clever details that flesh out this bizarre world – like the fact that almost every Christmas present seen in the film is wrapped into an identical package, or the propaganda posters seen briefly in the background that say stuff like Loose Talk is Noose Talk.
My only previous cinematic memory of Jonathan Pryce is the bland villain he played in Tomorrow Never Dies, a forgettable Pierce Brosnan entry in the Bond franchise, but this movie utilises him much better and he plays Sam with a perfect mix of comedy and pathos. Robert De Niro has a brief but very memorable appearance as Harry Tuttle, the fearless guerilla repairman who delights in giving the finger to the Central Services and shows up to fix Sam’s broken heating system before the official repairmen do. Michael Palin is both funny and ominous as Sam’s friend who is employed by the Information Retrieval department, and I spotted the much younger Jim Broadbent in the role of Sam’s mother’s plastic surgeon.
Apparently, at one point the movie was cut to include a more upbeat and “audience-friendly” ending, which Terry Gilliam fought bitterly, and thank god he won because the film otherwise would be ruined and its message completely lost. Can somebody edit Source Code too? There’s a movie that could do with a bleak ending.