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Arts & Culture

Midnight Movies: Brazil

In England the film's working title was 1984 & frac12;, and that provides a good indication of how Gilliam is about to offer his own variation of Orwell's novel. Gilliam presents us with an Orwellian future world but then adds a Walter Mitty-like character filtered through Kafka or Dostoevsky. Mix in ample helpings of darkly absurd comedy, romance, fantasy, social satire and a provocative ending, and you'll begin to get a taste of the exhilarating cinematic concoction Gilliam is whipping up.

Brazil does not actually have anything to do with the South American country. Instead, the title owes its inspiration to a popular song of the 30s that spoke of Brazil as only a state of mind. The escapist, romantic tone of that song inspired Gilliam: he was intrigued by the image of someone living in a bleak environment who's transported to some wondrous world through a flight of fancy. Being transported through one's imagination to some alternate universe comes into play repeatedly in the film and leads to its controversial ending. The ending so annoyed the studio that it tried to tamper with it and wretch it into a more commercial, conventional, simplistic and happy Hollywood one. Fortunately for us and for posterity, Gilliam won his battle with the studio and released the film as he envisioned it.

The futuristic world of Brazil is perverse variation of the one we currently live in. It's a kind of retro future. The cities are more densely packed, the pollution more prevalent, and the buildings are bigger and grimmer. In this dark oppressive world everything is connected by ducts - heating ducts, cooking ducts, sewage ducts, communication ducts... well you get the idea. Everything travels through the city's great intestines, which burst out of walls, pass through swanky restaurants, and are quite simply prominent fixtures everywhere you turn. (For Python fans they may remind you of the rapidly multiplying pipes from Gilliam's animation for the open of the Flying Circus TV show.)


Robert DeNiro is a commando plumber of sorts in Brazil (Universal)

The upkeep of these ducts falls upon unreliable city service workers who keep the public at their mercy by issuing or withholding repairs as a form of punishment or reward. But Harry Tuttle (played to hilarious perfection by Robert DeNiro) sees fit to defy the government. He's what one might call a commando handyman. He swoops in from nowhere like a guerrilla fighter to make illegal repairs and adjustments. This troubles the government who wants to rid itself of the pesky plumber. And this is actually where the film begins, with the government issuing an arrest order for Harry Tuttle. In the opening sequence we see a computer try to type Tuttle's name on an arrest sheet but a dead bug - would that be Kafka making his presence felt? - falls on the page causing a misprint. "Tuttle" has now become "Buttle," and this outrageous serio-comic Orwellian nightmare is set in motion.

Tuttle, however, is only a peripheral character moving surreptitiously around the perimeter of the story. Instead, the film quickly turns our attention to Sam Lowry (Jonathon Pryce), a knowing conformist who's perfectly content with his lowly and low-pressure civil servant job. His incompetent boss (a fussy Ian Holm) relies heavily on him, and so far that's provided him with all the job security he needs. Sam doesn't want to move up and his boss likes keeping him down - a perfectly symbiotic relationship.

But Sam's contentment is about to be shattered. One day he catches sight of Jill (Kim Greist), the woman of his dreams - literally. He's been having a reoccurring dream of a woman who looks just like Jill. The real world Jill is trying to get information about the wrongful arrest of her neighbor the unfortunately named Mr. Buttle. But the only way that Sam can find out more information about her is if he accepts a promotion to Information Retrieval. So the whole story escalates from one little computer foul up that leads to chilling consequences for our unsuspecting protagonist.

Brazil serves up one of the most breathtakingly imaginative worlds ever to be put on screen. Gilliam's creation joins a small handful of films whose production designs have truly challenged conventions and created new standards for creativity. Gilliam's Brazil joins Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and A Clockwork Orange , as well Ridley Scott's Blade Runner , as recent films of this caliber. Gilliam collaborates superbly with production designer Norman Garwood, and art directors John Beard and Keith Pain to bring this world to vivid life. Gilliam also relies on director of photography Roger Pratt and editor Julian Doyle. They play with perspective, and keep us guessing about what's real and what's fantasy. They endow the film with the crisp look of a comic nightmare. Pratt and Gilliam deserve special praise for their use of camera lenses and angles, which intensify the absurdity of the characters and their environment. There is never a moment when we fail to believe in this wildly absurd future. But we do remain in constant awe of the vast creative talent at work here, and the consistent inventiveness and attention to detail by Gilliam.


Gilliam, the only American among the British Pythons, worked primarily as an animator with on the comedy troupe's TV show and movies. His animation ranged from the relentlessly unfunny to the genuinely inspired. His background in animation, though, has given him a unique approach toward live action filmmaking. As an animator he was god to the worlds he created, having omnipotent power over everything, and the ability to create anything he wanted. After all drawing a tiny shack or a giant cathedral costs about the same in pen and paper. He now brings this fearless attitude to film. He seems completely unrestricted in terms of what puts up on the screen. His only limits are those of his vast imagination. Gilliam hasn't had to face any limitations in his animation and now he accepts no boundaries in live action work. In Brazil he creates a world that he manipulates it in a hilarious, entertaining, and ultimately disquieting way.

Gilliam has improved with each film he's made. His first feature as a writer-director was the disappointing Jabberwocky . But his second feature, Time Bandits, revealed a flair for originality and clever invention. Brazil is only his third feature and he has improved yet again. This time out, he possesses a far more assured and polished style. There's no unevenness to mar this film.

Gilliam benefits from his collaboration with co-writers Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown. Stoppard's influence in particular is a real plus. Stoppard, an absurdist playwright of the first class (he wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead ), lends his sharp wit and his fine sense of the absurd to the film. Gilliam with his visual flair and Stoppard with his deft verbal skills make an impressive team. Stoppard helps endow the film with a sharper edge and a political awareness. Together they give us a thoroughly absurd yet chillingly familiar world. We laugh but then we realize there's a sharp bite to the humor.

As with Orwell's 1984, Gilliam's Brazil presents a world where Big Brother is always watching you. Signs proclaim, "Don't suspect a friend, report him," and "Suspicion breeds confidence." We also see Sam's closet sized office where half a desk protrudes through the wall so he and his co-worker next door must play tug of war with the desk if either one wants more workspace. This is also a world where vanity prompts women to painful extremes. (There is an outrageously uncomfortable scene where Sam's mother has her sagging skin pulled tautly back with large metal clips and then bandaged up with saran wrap. All these details are presented effortlessly and help create the amazing environment of Brazil .

Jonathon Pryce in the disputed ending of Brazil (Universal)

The gifted cast also enhances the film. Pryce with his Stan Laurel like face is perfect as the complacent innocent who jumps into action for the woman of his dreams. Greist is all softness and flowing blonde locks in the dream world but is quite tough and resolute as the flesh and blood Jill. Michael Palin makes a cameo appearance as Sam's friend who handles a gruesome job in the Department of Information Retrieval with the utmost casualness.

Gilliam's Brazil (rated R) is supremely entertaining yet it does not leave you laughing blithely. It leaves one with a discomfort that provokes thought about our world. In terms of both its style and its content it challenges complacency and conformity, and champions the dreamer. Plus, it's exhilarating filmmaking.

Companion viewing: Time Bandits, Monty Python and the Holy Grail ( Gilliam plays Patsy among other characters), Blade Runner