Friday, March 28, 2014

Brazil

It's tempting to describe Brazil (1985) as Monty Python's 1984, and it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to do so. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the American member of the troupe who created the surreal animation segments for the Pythons, Brazil can be described as a satirical, whimsical, and cheeky take on a futuristic dystopia where the citizenry lives in fear of an oppressive, faceless government. Gilliam has fun illustrating the absurdities of the state bureaucracy, the ridiculous extremes people will go for the latest technologies and trends, and pretty much every character exists as a cartoonish caricature brought to life.

However, there are moments in Brazil that are absolutely unnerving and even chilling. This is a world where innocent people are hurt, and this corrupt, self-serving, self-perpetuating system remains intact; there is no revolution or uprising to right the scales of justice. Gilliam also films the movie in a disjointed, off-kilter style that is equally disorienting, freakish, and even nightmarish at times. Many of the characters resemble distorted, inhuman monsters while the buildings and vehicles are large, industrial, and dirty in a way that suggest this is post-apocalyptic.

Yet, there are moments of great beauty and imagination. Even in this dark, warped, and bizarre world, there exists some solace for those seek it. The state can dictate so much about your life - where you go, where you work, what form you need to do this or that - but the state can't take away your dreams.

Following a glitch in which is an innocent man is mistaken for a terrorist and arrested (because of a squished fly on a form), low-level government employee Sam Lowry(Jonathan Pryce) attempts to correct the mistake, and when he visits the man's widow, he sees Jill Layton (Kim Greist), a woman who was not only a witness to the wrongful arrest but who also resembles the woman of Lowry's frequent dreams, dreams in which he is a heroic and dashing figure who battles monsters and giants. Lowry attempts to contact and help her, both because he's fallen in love with her and she's now considered a terrorist for trying to report the mistake, something the government will never admit to.

Brazil, in a word, is a busy. It can also be described as chaotic and hard to watch. There's a lot of activity going on in front of the camera almost all the time, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. In almost every scene, there's an explosion, a bustle of people coming and going, a fleet of vehicles at work, or a group of police breaking through walls and windows, and Gilliam film it all with a frantic, ever-moving camera and a wide-angle lens that gives all the characters a distorted, almost other-worldly look, like a cartoon rendered in real life. It's a movie that rarely allows you to feel comfortable. Nothing looks normal.

The look of the film is so important to conveying this world: vast, imposing halls and torture chambers; office complexes that resemble mazes as lines of bureaucrats file paperwork endlessly; heating vents and air ducts that jut out of the walls into the open space; and buildings that seem to tower infinitely into the sky. At times, the movie is claustrophobic and paranoid as Sam becomes lost in tight corridors of emotionless people. At other times, it's disquieting and bleak, such as when the camera frames him as this tiny, individual figure that is dwarfed by his the halls and walls around him, rendering him insignificant.

Gilliam has fun depicting the absurdities in this world: the police who give a receipt to the wife of the man they've just arrested, a supervisor contemplating suicide when a piece of paperwork becomes unaccounted for, the plastic surgery that involves stretching the patient's cheeks out to grotesque levels, and the terrorist repairman Archibald Tuttle (Robert de Niro), who is portrayed almost a superhero by zip lining out of Sam's apartment after performing an illegal repair without, gasp, the proper paperwork. In one bit that wouldn't have been out of place on Flying Circus, Sam arrives in his new office (which looks like a basement broom closet) and fights with his co-worker next door (Charles McKeown, who co-wrote the script with Gilliam and Tom Stoppard); the thing is, the desk is shared between both their offices, divided by the wall, so they struggle to keep the desk on their side.

But darker material grows from the wackiness. Gilliam's fellow Python Michael Palin turns up as Jack Lint, an employee of the state. Jack's is presented as an overly cheery family man and good old chap, but he's revealed to be a man who tortures people for the government; he brings one of his children to work, and meanwhile, he's covered in blood and rationalizing the death of one subject because of someone's else clerical error, resulting in him not knowing of the man's heart condition. "The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?" Jack reasons. At the end, when it's Sam's turn to sit in the torture chair, Jack prepares to work on him while wearing a freakish baby doll mask that hides the jolly old friend beneath.

The respite from the absurdities of the bureaucracy and the horror of the government is either buying consumer goods and plastic surgery as Sam's mother does, ignoring it, or imagination, which Sam finds in his dreams. Instead of a nervous, sweating clerk, Sam in his imagination appears as a dashing hero with a flowing locks, angel wings, and a massive sword as he battles monsters and other villains (some who wear baby doll masks) to rescue a fair, imprisoned maiden. These dreams sequences play mostly dialogue-free and feel very abstract. It's in Sam's dreams we see the beautiful sky and clouds. 

At the end, when Sam becomes lost in his mind, oblivious to the torture inflicted upon him, he begins to hum the song "Brazil."

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