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  • Manny Labram

Brazil, 1985 - Review

Updated: Jan 31

‘Have you got a 27b/6?’

Brazil is a 1985 dystopian fantasy dark comedy film directed by Terry Gilliam. The film takes place in a twisted futuristic world where a totalitarian government oppresses its citizens, causing them to live bleak lives loaded with colossal amounts of paperwork for everyday activities and an abundance of anti-government terrorist attacks on the unconcerned upper class. It is consistently compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four novel of which the film draws a lot of inspiration.

The plot centres around Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a low-level government bureaucrat who ditches his mundane but stable life of mediocrity in an effort to find the woman in his dreams, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), whom he is also madly in love with.

There is a lot to unpack in this film. Unlike the name suggests, Brazil is not about the tropical, friendly, South American country, and nor does it take place there. The title of the film comes from its recurring theme song ‘Brazil’ by Ary Barroso (covered by Geoff and Maria Muldaur in the film’s soundtrack). The film takes place in an unspecified western megacity sometime in the 20th century and over the Christmas period. Straight off the bat we can see Gilliam subverts our expectations of Brazil. Unlike the romantic, melodic theme song that plays throughout the film, there is nothing idyllic about the story of Brazil. Though its plot does centre around romance like the lyrics of the song, the film’s romantic climax is one of tragedy. And, unlike the joyful and festive atmosphere associated with Christmas, there are no glad tidings brought in the plot of Brazil.

The story of Brazil begins when a literal bug causes a mistake in the government system, leading to the arrest and eventual death of innocent man Archibald Buttle (Brian Miller), instead of wanted rogue terrorist Archibald Tuttle (Robert De Niro). This mistake causes a chain of events; Sam offers to pay off Mr. Buttle’s widow wife, Veronica Buttle (Sheila Reid), which brings him into contact with Mrs. Buttle’s neighbour, Jill, who bears a striking resemblance to the woman Sam has been fantasising in his dreams, who is now seen as an accomplice of Mr Tuttle after she tries to report the wrongful crime, which then causes Sam to take a promotion brought about by his big-name mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond), of which Sam was originally against, in an effort to save Jill from the terrible hands of the government. In the midst of all this, Sam does in fact meet Mr. Buttle, his friends call him Harry, who helps Sam with his heating problems leading to the two becoming friends. The story ultimately culminates in Sam’s eventual tortured demise at the hands of the tyrannical government.

Brazil is a visual masterpiece. The cinematography, set designs, and costume designs all succeed in painting a picture of a bleak totalitarian world. Its colour scheme consists mostly of oily blacks, and foggy greys which help emphasise a society choking on itself. In terms of special effects, Brazil is akin to films like Blade Runner 1982, or Terminator 1984, where its seemingly low budget effects only add to the dystopian nightmare that it is trying to achieve. There is a sense that the world in Brazil is so grand and vast. In the few scenes that take place outside the city, it feels as though the characters have travelled a million miles to escape the city’s grim bureaucratic hands. Even the unassuming extra cast members, adults and children alike, help reinforce this non individualistic society.

Each of Sam’s dream sequences are incredible. From the pillars of earth rising from the ground, to giant samurai warriors with flaming blood, the creativity and imagination in this film is unparalleled.

Brazil can be categorised into two parts. The first half primarily deals with the Buttle, Tuttle confusion. Within this section we get a, slightly shallow, overview of the world that is Brazil. It’s over the top, absurdist humour is a clear satire of the western world’s bureaucracy and hyper-surveillance, among other things. We meet various members of the aloof upper class and the destructive world in which they ignore.

My favourite scene where Sam goes to dinner with his mother Ida, and her comedically highbrow friend, Mrs. Terrain (Barbara Hicks) and her daughter, Shirley (Kathryn Pogson), is a good summary of the world Brazil seeks to build. At an equally comedically highbrow restaurant, Ida, adorned in a leopard print jacket and leopard print heeled shoe-hat to match, urges Sam to take a promotion in order to climb the corporate ladder and live a more ‘successful’ life. Sam resists, advocating he doesn’t want anymore in life, before going off to dream about his beloved damsel in the skies. The scene boasts several funny and intriguing nuances; as mentioned, Ida’s ridiculous leopard print heeled shoe turned hat, Shirley’s socially awkwardness exemplified when she offers Sam salt before they have even ordered their meal, the restaurant menu that only deals with numbers and not names for its dishes, the overzealous highbrow waiter who insists Sam orders by number and not the name of the dish, and the destructive terrorist bomb that goes off in a corner of the restaurant that is overlooked by the characters at the dinner table, and to which Sam refuses to help contain by commenting “It’s my lunch hour. Besides, it’s not my department.”

This initial dismissal of the bomb, which has caused many casualties, is in stark contrast to Sam towards the later half of the film, at which point he has taken part and met many anti-establishment activities and people, where he is very much hands-on in helping the innocent people hurt by terrorist bombing.

The second half of the film focuses on Sam and his now love interest Jill, and their persecution by the government. This to me is where Brazil takes a slight downturn in terms of entertaining plot. All the same, there are many fantastical highlights such as Harry getting back at two Central Services workers who are causing problems for Sam, by filling their hazmat suits with some nasty sewage causing them to eventually explode.

Another big highlight of Brazil for me is the ending. Though “and it was all just a dream’’ is an ending strategy that is often played out in films, it works very well in Brazil. The government eventually captures the two love birds Sam and Jill. They kill Jill and begin to torture Sam. It then appears that Harry has come back with his terrorist squad to rescue Sam from torture, before things go from fairytale dream to hellish nightmare. Harry is consumed by the abstract paperwork he’s fought so long and hard to avoid, there is a highbrow funeral held for Ida hosted by the highbrow restaurant waiter, before her corpse turns to I don’t know what, and finally Sam seems to escape to the countryside with his beloved Jill, before we realise he is dreaming once more of Jill and is still in fact being held and tortured by the government.

Brazil does well to maintain a good level of intrigue and entertainment by delivering plenty wacky and zany characters that accurately portray the absurdities of the upper class. Having myself worked in classy restaurants and bars, I know too well of the nonsensical effort to maintain elegant customs, as done by the restaurant waiter. My favourite character would have to go to Mr Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), Sam’s boss. Though in a higher position, he relies on Sam to get him out of a bind, and would be seemingly useless if left to his own devices. Fortunately, he is as funny as he is harmless. Like Sam, he just wants things to remain the same with no mishaps. It is a shame he had such little screen time/played a small role in the film. A close second (and third) are the two Central Service cronies, Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and Dowser (Derrick O’Connor). They are a classic comedy duo in which the taller, Dowser, is the idiotic sidekick, and Spoor is the short plumper lead. They offer plenty of funny dialogue and interaction with Sam. Again, I would have enjoyed seeing more of them, though they had adequate screen time.

This is a breakthrough performance and film for Jonathan Pryce’s. It is so far the only time I’ve seen him play a leading role, and he does so immensely well. His character, at first being content with an unassuming life, comes to his own by the end of the film, risking it all to be with Jill.

Robert De Hero gives a stellar performance in this film too. Though he has few scenes, each time he is on screen, he out performs everyone, even Jonathan Pryce. A noteworthy piece of trivia. De Niro insisted on 25 to 30 takes for his scenes, whilst most of the other actors/actresses only took between two to three takes. His efforts in the end were worthwhile, as this film is proof of his acting greatness.

Unfortunately Kim Greist as Jill, Sam’s love interest, did not quite warm my heart. I found her to be slightly dry and to be honest just hard to get. Director Terry Gilliam did not like her performance in the film and a lot of her scenes were cut. I think this had quite a negative impact on the film since the plot revolved heavily around her romance with Sam.

My two biggest complaints about the film are firstly, as briefly mentioned above, the film doesn’t go into a huge amount of depth as to how and why the world they live in is so bleak. I think to some degree the film would have worked better as a novel, as it would enable it to go into more depth in world building and even with secondary characters. From the jump the audience just has to accept that this fantastical world sucks, with no real explanation. My second gripe, maybe due to my TikTok brain, I found the film slightly overstimulating. With all the costume design, set builds, and little dialogue quirks, it’s definitely a film I recommend watching more than once. The problem there is that many complain that the film is slightly too long, which I don’t particularly agree with. The film did feel shorter the second time around after not having to reabsorb all the theatrics.

Overall Brazil is a fun, entertaining watch and an excellent reminder that ‘we’re all in it together.’ From its eccentric characters, to its magnificent visuals, it feels like a film everyone should try and see at least once. I also loved the use of the track 'Brazil' and can't get it out of my head. I will however admit, I probably want to like it more than I actually do. It feels more like an experience than an amazing well written film. I’ve read in other reviews that the film feels ‘half-baked’ and I somewhat agree. Maybe with a bit better casting on Jill’s behalf, and a slightly more in depth background story, the film is a potential giant. Still, I encourage people to watch as there are so many enjoyable and creative takes from the film, it is a shame that it is not as widely recognised by casual watchers.

Overall rating - 8/10


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