In Defence of Brazil

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I take issue with the notion that this film needs defending. Unless you’re a 13-year-old who can’t function if you’re not doped to the gills on sugar and watching something directed by Michael Bay, you don’t need me to tell you that this film is a masterpiece! That said, any excuse to talk about this madcap dystopian nightmare is an excuse I will take!

Ex-Python and insane genius Terry Gilliam invites us into the world of everyman Sam Lowry – a Winston Smith for the modern age. Sam’s life is dominated by official forms, heating ducts and processed food, bullied and emasculated on all sides by pushy waiters, employers and even his own mother. This is a cold world: paperwork and administration reign supreme and the skies are dominated by monolithic office blocks and shopping centres. I would put a ‘just like today’ joke in there somewhere, but the accuracy with which Brazil predicted the future is a little too close for comfort.

Comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 are inevitable. So it may therefore come as a shock to learn that at the time of writing the screenplay, Gilliam had never read the book: “the knowledge I had was just general knowledge, the stuff you get from college. And then there was the simple fact that 1984 — the year! — was approaching. So I thought we’ve got to do 1984½.Instead his inspiration came from the most unlikely of sources: Alice in Wonderland.

Like Carol, Gilliam – without pausing for breath – goes straight through the looking glass, creating a warped and unrestrained reflection of Orwell’s seminal novel that the author himself might have written had he been on enough acid to topple the Fab Four. Kaleidoscopic wide-angle shots of hideous people in hideous costumes, domineering businessmen and government officials and dream sequences that see a winged Lowry doing battle with monstrous samurai; taking a sledgehammer to any and all notions of structural and for that matter Hollywood industry conventions, Gilliam unleashed his meditation on the world as he saw it his way.

Choosing stars like Jonathan Pryce over the likes of Tom Cruise and other such big names at the time, Gilliam fought long and hard to do his vision justice. He even went toe-to-toe with the President of Universal Pictures whose saccharin vision for the film – dubbed the ‘Love Conquers All’ edit – neutered Gilliam’s artistry and replaced it with traditional Hollywood values. Ultimately though, love did conquer all – just not in the way that Universal intended.

This is indeed a love story, only it’s not really one about Lowry and his dream woman. This is Gilliam’s love letter to Lewis Carol, The Trial and the grand tradition of German expressionism. A visceral dissection of this farcically insane era of transcontinental bureaucracy and outrageous consumerism. One that bleeds Kafka and Caligari – an absurdist piece of pure creative expression so beautifully surreal that it can and will never age. Okay we’ve eschewed typewriters and heating ducts from our lives, but the leviathan of bureaucracy that Gilliam predicted is so perfectly realised that it is only becoming more relevant as time goes by.

Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam, is distributed by 20th Century Fox. Certificate 15.

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Filmmaker, philosopher, critic (on occasion). Also writes for MUBI Notebook. It's not the side-effects of the cocaine. I'm thinking that it must be love.

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