Dystopic films are nearly always grim or despairing. In Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, the future is certainly dark but it’s a hoot too.
Cheerful chaos reigns in Brazil, whose title is a send-up of the song Aquarela do Brasil. In the 1985 film, which is available on MUBI, humanity is crammed into a totalitarian state built on conformity and control. “Suspicion breeds confidence” is one of the official mottos.
Bureaucracy is paramount, with every action accompanied by a relevant clause and the filling out of forms. Monotony is a form of national service. “Wasting ministry time and paper” is a serious offence.
But humans will be humans. The power keeps tripping. There is trash and pollution everywhere. Terrorist attacks are so routine they are ignored. Supposedly advanced technology errs ever so often. Low-level employees pretend to work while indulging in the 1980s version of checking their phones on the job – they watch classic films on their computer screens. Dissenters slip through the cracks.
If there is hope, it must lie in the holes. Passionate pencil-pusher Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) finds out just how imperfect the system is when Archibald Buttle is killed instead of the rogue engineer Archibald Tuttle (Robert de Niro). Sam has been having dreams in which he is a winged warrior, saving a beautiful woman from danger. Then he sees the woman, Jill (Kim Griest), and becomes the unlikeliest of anarchists.
The futuristic realm of Brazil could be Great Britain (the America-born Gilliam’s country of residence), or Hollywood (which frequently curbed Gilliam’s creative freedom) or a grossly inefficient version of Oceania from George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. Gilliam also satirises various conspiracy thrillers, whether in the spoofy angular architecture or the suspicious agents lurking about.
The movie is visually stunning but not in the glossy, big-budget Hollywood way. The sets resemble a madman’s scrapbook of dystopia, with narrow corridors, crammed apartments or office spaces, and litter-lined streets. Given the ample loose wiring, ungainly pneumatic pipes and ugly decor, the future of humankind has never looked so sorry, or laughable.
The absurdist screenplay, with contributions from Tom Stoppard, has dry British wit and hilarious situations played absolutely straight. The pitch-perfect cast includes Gilliam’s Monty Python colleague Michael Palin as an apple-polisher, Katherine Helmond as Sam’s facelift-addicted mother, and Ian Holm as Sam’s lazy boss.
As a romantic rebel, Jonathan Pryce is foolish as well as admirable. The film’s tone is captured in Sam’s wonderstruck gaze whenever he sets eyes on Jill or his mildly muddled look when yet another glitch in the matrix appears. In Sam’s version of “love Big Brother”, the uniquely human talent for fantasy proves to be the best defence against the dictatorship.
Also read in the Start the week with a film series: