Brazil

Brazil ★★★★½

As someone who spends at least a few hours per working day chuntering obscenities under my breath at the recalcitrant technology I have to fondle into functionality, it's easy to relate to Brazil on a surface level. Watching it with the knowledge of some of the slings and arrows suffered by Terry Gilliam during the making of subsequent films it seems outright portentous. Watching it with any degree of movie literacy is a treat. Beyond that, finding words for it is kind of difficult.

At its core, I suppose it's a cinematic depiction of Gilliam's frustration with bureaucracy in all it's forms. The little man crushed by the weight of the faceless machine, which needs those little cogs to function, but there's plenty spare if any break along the way. So far, so Nineteen Eighty-Four. Gilliam goes as far as referencing the apartment number George Orwell finished his novel in one of the interminable pieces of paperwork that festoon the movie. But this is so much more than a lazy reference to Orwell's modern ur-text.

For instance, it is endlessly referential. One can see a direct reference to Battleship Potemkin's Odessa Steps sequence, nods to German expressionism in some of the amazing set design, echoes of Douglas Adams' Vogons in the slavish dedication to paperwork, and of course there are the surreal traces of the illustrious Pythons throughout. Also, for me, calling the main character Lowry (the excellent Jonathan Pryce) may be a reference to the bleak faceless denizens depicted in the works of the artist L.S. Lowry. I can't find any evidence to back this up however.

It also differs from Orwell's novel in that the autocratic structure in that instance is ruthlessly efficient, in direct contrast to the almost bumbling depiction of autocracy Gilliam presents us with. Events in the movie are kick-started by the simple catalyst of a typo caused by a dead bug falling into a typewriter. Human error is rife, yet it is asserted time and again that, thanks to this technology, mistakes cannot be made. The status quo is upheld by the derisive politeness of all the millions of other cogs.

I did wonder if Gilliam is having a laugh at the expense of the English at times. There is a serious Blitz-spirit aesthetic in the visuals, despite the additional futuristic add-ons (and it it these, bizarrely, that date to movie. Nothing ages so quickly as a vision of the future). The stereotypical English stiff-upper lip is celebrated as much as it is ridiculed. Witness the defiantly unfazed response to terrorist bombs exploding in the vicinity; the maintenance of social mores in the face of adversity. It is a massively English dystopia. It may be a coincidence, but the two characters that act as Lowry's catalysts towards rebellions are Tuttle (Robert De Niro) and his literal dream woman Jill (Kim Greist) distinguishable by their American accents.

It is Lowry's relationship with Jill that forms one of the few weak areas of the film as far as I'm concerned. Gilliam was reputedly not that taken with Greist's performance (although apparently Madonna was considered at one point), but she does fine here. She pales next to Pryce who is just tremendous but it's the relationship rather than the acting that doesn't convince. It would have rung truer if they had remained platonic.

To be honest though, moaning about any aspect of this film only occupies you for so long before something awesome can be highlighted. It's a long, meandering film as Gilliam is wont to produce. But who cares when it's an absolutely ramshackle delight? I love the effects. They feel pleasingly solid and inventive compared with the like of the CGI ephemera of later works like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The symbolism in Lowry's flights of fancy scenes are probably a bit heavy (he has wings you see...), but again, who cares? Pryce again shows his range, looking every bit as convincing as an avenging angel type than as a meek office drone.

Then there are such brilliant details as the jolly stenographer who, on closer inspection, is transcribing an interrogation, complete with the phonetic renderings of the poor soul on the receiving end. It's worth trying to slow the action down to spot the propaganda posters littering the place; evoking World War II-era slogans, from both the Allied and Axis sides.

I haven't even mentioned the roster of excellent English character actors providing small but memorable support, the curiously ambiguous ending (which looks initially very bleak; but is it really?) which I am very glad Gilliam fought the studio to retain, and I've only touched on bits of the endless invention on show. If I'm honest though, I am fairly well lubricated and as such, have allowed myself to wing it in a fairly unstructured way, which I am certain is in-keeping with the spirit of the movie itself.

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