A cult classic

Brazil remains bleak, brilliant and beautiful

Just how many movies owe their lives to Brazil? In terms of sheer visual audacity, director Terry Gilliam’s antic, art deco, retro-futurist fantasy outstripped just about everything that came before it, and continues to wreak havoc — in the best possible way — upon legions of black-clad introverts clutching an art-school degree and a video camera. The collaborations of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children) bear perhaps the closest resemblance, but Gilliam’s ability to create a completely new world out of junkyard artifacts can be traced through everything from the Coen brothers’ screwy Hudsucker Proxy to David Fincher’s fashionably nihilistic Fight Club. Tim Burton may have a gleefully stylized aesthetic all his own, but would studio execs have ever understood him if Brazil never happened?

It’s ironic, then, that the movie almost never happened at all, at least not the version that reached American theaters in 1985. Notorious for crafting multimillion-dollar productions out of pipe dreams, the impulsive Gilliam had been developing the idea for the film as far back as his Monty Python days, before the commercial success of 1981’s Time Bandits suddenly made him a hot property. In a windfall of capital that could only come from producers drunk on the idea of discovering the next big thing, Brazil was given the green light; and, when finished, disowned by just about everyone who fronted the cash. According to the men in suits, it was too long, too dark, too confusing and, as Gilliam himself admits, “an assault on the senses.” Rescued by early critical praise, the movie alienated about as many as it converted; lucky for us, the latter group ended up being the only one that mattered.

Twenty years and countless imitators later, Gilliam’s magnum opus still looks like nothing else and feels more prescient than ever. Set “somewhere in the 20th century,” a bleak, authoritarian government tries to prevent terrorist attacks by conducting random, absurdly inaccurate crackdowns. The real resistance fighters like Harry Tuttle (a cigar-chomping Robert De Niro) gleefully escape punishment; meanwhile, government drones like Sam Lowry (the Chaplin-esque Jonathan Pryce) eke out a joyless existence in their automated, high-rise apartments and dream of something better. In Sam’s case, that includes the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist), an angelic blonde whom he happens to glimpse during his paper-pushing. Sam doesn’t join the resistance so much as he’s sucked into it by circumstance and desire. True to Gilliam’s vision, the movie is as much about Sam’s dreams being his salvation as it is about his dreams being his prison.

As busy and frantic as the story is, it’s surprisingly simple; Brazil has the elegance of a great opera (and almost as little dialogue). But the movie’s most lasting accomplishment might be the way it merged the fantastical production design of Spielberg-ian blockbusters with a willful, perverse sensibility. The film is a mess of Freudian tubes, hoses, ducts, wires and plugs, the characters dwarfed by ominous, slate-gray buildings and fiery oil refineries. This isn’t the electronic age; it’s more like a vacuum-pump-operated world that never happened, and the brilliant sound design is full of ominous wheezes, gasps and sucking noises.

Gilliam may have spent loads of money on the sets, but damned if he wasn’t going to infuse them with the same twisted, irreverent, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes he brought to his classic Monty Python animations. Check out the marching band carrying the “Consumers for Christ” sign, or the shiny public-service billboards that read, “Happiness: We’re all in it together!” Despite all the obvious comparisons to Orwell’s 1984, the movie is more like Metropolis on acid or A Clockwork Orange on laughing gas.

Taking risks always results in a few hiccups, and Sam’s cloud-filled dream sequences — in which he envisions himself as some sort of long-haired, winged hero — can be a little cheesy. But even this works in the overall fabric of the movie. When a character tells Sam, “You’ve got no sense of reality,” you get the feeling that Gilliam means it as both a criticism as well as the ultimate compliment.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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