Brazil

Brazil ★★★★½

"Listen, kid, we're all in it together."

In the world of Brazil, people get abducted by the government over typos and wind up dead. The same government is completely ineffective at dealing with a terrorist bombing campaign. Society is rendered impossible to navigate through the swamp of bureaucracy and threatens to overwhelm everyone's dreams and desires. Intensive plastic surgery results in "complications," food looks like a disgusting paste, and a seemingly-normal family man works as a torturer by day. It's a funny world, but endlessly horrifying, and easy to see the connections to our own. Brazil shows us a fully-realized dystopia in the 1984 tradition, but with more character and wit than seems possible. It's a complex film on many levels, but it tells a story that's relatable on a universal level.

Dead-end bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) does his best to fit in with the needlessly-complicated and unspecified society. By day, he toils away in the office, content with his situation. By night, he dreams of being the hero--soaring through the skies, saving the woman he loves, facing off against fearsome minions. He rejects these dreams out of hand, but can't ignore them when confronted by a real-life opportunity to be the hero. The plot is complicated and circuitous, mirroring the labyrinthine nature of Sam's world. He has to deal with his skittish boss, overbearing mother, two-faced friends, and an assortment of government stooges. The desire to escape is palpable, but the Orwellian world that makes up Brazil seems impossible to circumvent.

The setting of Brazil is the film's greatest success. Director Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, assembles a world full of moving parts. The production design is consistently jaw-dropping, and the retro-futuristic aesthetic is lovely. It could take place anywhere or anytime, and it feels very unique and elaborate. There are looming skyscrapers that look like huge tombstones, dangerously-outmoded air conditioning systems that surround an apartment, and a busy office where people shirk work to watch Casablanca. There's an amazing amount of creativity behind practically every frame of Brazil, and a tone that's very two-sided. The society is bleak and oppressive, but always humorous in a wacky Gilliam way.

The satire of Brazil is as pertinent today as it was in 1985. Gilliam takes every opportunity to poke fun at the horrifying society Sam Lowry lives in. There are plenty of larger-than-life characters who are happy to be cogs in the machine, and situations that seem like biting Kafkaesque black comedy. It's a witty and fun take on the 1984 dystopia, but it doesn't sacrifice any of that world's bleakness. It offers respite in the world of fantasy, but for Sam, it's all too fleeting. The film alternates between comedy and horror at the turn of a dime, because the situation is ripe for both. The concept of a self-sustaining totalitarian bureaucracy that's led by no one is genuinely frightening, because there's no one to appeal, no one that understands, no one that's not part of the system.

And stuck between the two worlds of bombastic fantasy and cruel reality, there's Sam Lowry, fantastically played by Jonathan Pryce. He evolves from a hopeless but likable bureaucrat to a bumbling hero to someone willing to fight for his dreams. It's an imaginative journey that sees him travel through every level of Brazil's dystopia. On the lowest, there's the poor Buttle family, suffering a tragedy after a nonsensical bureaucratic error. At the highest, there's his mother, undergoing a radical plastic surgery regime to look younger than ever. Between the two, there are constant obstructions and technology that backfires at every angle. Terry Gilliam weaves together a complex tale that's sometimes hard to take in. In this case, it excels at making you feel the plight of Sam Lowry and everyone else caught up in the mess of society.

The world of Brazil feels like a fever dream that you don't really want to leave--a place where hearts were entertaining June, where tomorrow was another day...