Terry Gilliam has a reputation in the world of moviemaking as, well, a bit of a lunatic. His films are utterly unique, bereft of the Hollywood norms and usually awash with absolutely mad ideas. The excellent 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are wonderful pieces of cinema, showing that Gilliam, for all his idiosyncrasies, can make a cracking film. Of course, his work is not always so successful; the Python alumnus’ productions have been dubbed ‘cursed’ on many occasions, from Heath Ledger passing away during the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to the almost numberless foul-ups associated with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (flash floods, a severe injury to the leading man, jet fly-overs and many other problems). Not has the phrase ‘troubled production’ been used so frequently in connection with a director since Werner Herzog made movies with his muse/nemesis Klaus Kinski.
1985’s Brazil is, for many, Terry Gilliam’s greatest triumph. A production with a nearly miraculous lack of catastrophes by Gilliam’s standards, its plot follows low-level government employee Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce)’s life in a dystopian future England. Surrounded by a limitless swarm of identical co-workers and machinery, Lowry escapes his monotonous existence in fantastical dreams where he is clad in angelic armour, saving the life of an unknown woman (Kim Greist). Upon seeing this woman in the real world – she’s called Jill Layton and associates with terrorists – while correcting a clerical error that has caused the death of the wrong man, he becomes fixated on her, and attempts to make his dreams a reality by wooing her. However, this comes at the expense of more than just a few hours every day, and Sam drops everything in the name of love…
So far, it sounds like a fantasy rom-com, right? Yet nothing could be further from the truth: Gilliam’s film is, at its heart, a pointed satire condemning the bureaucracy that the director clearly detests. Every office is dull and grey, day-to-day life simply a perpetual repetition of routines – Sam is so entranced by Jill because she offers a break from the mundanity, just as Robert De Niro’s Harry Tuttle, the renegade heating engineer-cum-terrorist, is a charming and thrilling individual Sam cannot help but admire. Gilliam draws on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to create his dystopian world, everything metallic and the people nearly robotic, but eschews the occasionally punishingly slow pace of Lang’s classic, infusing his film instead with moments of comedy: some slapstick, some blacker than burnt toast.
The immense sets which Brazil uses are clearly crafted with a great deal of care, and they are in large part the basis for the satire on contemporary life which Gilliam’s film proffers. From the faceless, seemingly endless tower block where Sam lives to the slumlike alleyways of ‘Shangri La’ where he encounters Jill for the first time. In addition to these carefully constructed sets, the costumes are a vital part of the world Gilliam has created. The avant-garde fashions of Sam’s mother and her narcissistic cabal of friends make Lady Gaga’s wardrobe look puritanical, and they clearly influenced Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, where the outlandish and bizarre clothing helps add depth to the French director’s world.
The cast of Brazil are a collection of characters almost as strange as their clothing, and though the film is clearly Pryce’s to enjoy, his supporting cast is excellent: De Niro, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent and Michael Palin are all on excellent form, and despite their limited screentime create fleshed-out, eccentric and memorable characters. Pryce’s Sam is another brilliant creation, always put-upon by his boss, his family or even the men fixing his air conditioning; when he loses grip on the bureaucracy which is so integral to this world, he gets swept away, and Pryce conveys this sense of aimlessness and sorrow brilliantly.
Unfortunately, Greist cannot offer this same quality. In a cast so deep with talent, her average acting chops are that much more noticeable, and consequently we do force ourselves to wonder how Sam would become so infatuated with her. Brazil was only her second feature film, so it is understandable that she stumbles on screen with greats like De Niro or Bob Hoskins giving great performances. Gilliam’s casting has always been somewhat erratic, and in this instance it falls somewhat short.
The second, and rather larger, problem I had with Brazil was that, for large parts, we have no idea what is going on. The plot and dialogue are so rapidly paced they become almost indecipherable at times, forcing us to really think long and hard after the credits have rolled in order to unpack it all. The sheer velocity of the piece is staggering, Gilliam never allowing us to rest, and consequently some of the film’s jokes and moral points get lost in the ocean somewhat. Perhaps we are meant to view this as a wider satire about the breakneck pace of modern living, but it feels more like the director needed a cup of tea and a bit of a sit down at some stage during editing.
I watched Brazil more than a week ago, and yet I still feel a touch unsure about what actually happens. A friend asked me ‘what’s that film all about?’, and I struggled to give an answer in less than 10 minutes. It’s a meticulously crafted movie, stocked with talent in front of and behind the lens, and full of biting satire throughout. The final 15 minutes are truly fantastic, and the film’s ending is one of the best I’ve seen. The kind of film that requires several re-watches to fully understand it, Brazil is a bit of an untidy heap at first, but after a little post-mortem it’s a really enjoyable and innovative film.
8/10: Brazil is a terrifyingly original piece of cinema, and one which shows the directorial talent Gilliam would perfect with Fear and Loathing in 1998. If anything, it’s a film too full of ideas, some of which get lost in the torrent of images the director presents us with. A truly pioneering work, with some fantastic performances, it’s not easy to digest, but it’s ultimately very satisfying.