Revisiting Brazil

Film societies seem to have an affinity for cult films; one example of such is Terry Gilliam’s seminal flick Brazil. Its humorous, colourful and surrealistic presentation is one often imitated, but never surpassed.

When the lights were turned off in the lecture theatre where the film was being screened, my friend’s forehead hit the desk in front of us, where he remained asleep for the vast majority of the film.

When an arrest warrant is sent out for Archibald Tuttle, a spelling error instead causes Archibald Buttle to be captured, later dying in custody.  Bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), while attempting to correct the mistake, accidentally becomes an enemy of the state.

Dystopia has become somewhat of a cliché in recent years; however, I think this film has achieved the ever-elusive quality of timelessness, portraying a busy and over-complicated alternative future that manages to still be relevant and fresh even today. Gilliam has described the film’s setting as “neither past nor future, yet a bit of each”. The main character, Sam Lowry is content to simply be a cog in the grand machine, with no real goals or aspirations until by pure happenstance, and the convoluted result of an administrative error, he spots in a crowd the (quite literal) girl of his dreams, Jill. The origins and inner workings of this particular society are never explicitly explained, lending a layer of depth, which meant that I noticed a lot more detail that I missed on previous viewings.

Katherine Helmond as the image-obsessed Mrs. Lowry

Absurdist humour abounds, such as the now iconic ‘face stretching’ scene, or the commercial for duct wallpaper, with a strong message about the effects of commercialism and corporatism running as an undercurrent throughout. One could easily draw comparisons between Brazil and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, albeit with the former’s world being far more whimsical in nature. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the overbearing ‘Ministry of Information’; the ‘Information Retrieval’ sector being comparable to the ‘Ministry of Truth’ described in Orwell’s book.  Yet all this is interspersed with sobering beats of human drama, most notably the effective and memorable ending that had me thinking about it for weeks afterwards.

My friend awoke in time to watch the whole ending sequence, but clearly didn’t understand what was happening, judging by the look on his face. While not a film for everyone, Brazil is still a classic and deeply rewarding experience that really warrants multiple viewings.