Brazil

3 12 2007

BrazilQuite a few films have a behind-the-scenes history of power struggles and “creative differences”, but only a select few enter lore as being films that almost devoured their creators. Apocalypse Now is one such film; Brazil is another.

Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, who had previously directed Time Bandits and Jabberwocky, set about to create his own 1984. Gilliam’s vision was of a twisted, distorted version of the present, occupying a space and time given only as “Somewhere in the 20th Century”, but looking like a totalitarian future as envisaged from the perspective of post-war Britain. The oppression is palpable, led not by a menacing “Big Brother”-type but instead by a bureaucratic system determined to justify its own existence.

Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, a man content to live out his life working in the bowels of the bureaucracy, supplementing his day-to-day drudgery with Icarus-like fantasies where he flies through the clouds and rescues the woman of his dreams. When Sam actually encounters (quite literally) “the woman of his dreams” (played by Kim Greist), he soon discovers the impact that poorly-managed governmental systems can have on ordinary people.

Brazil still

Every inch of the world of Brazil emphasises the irony that the things we rely on to improve our lives often end up hindering us more than helping. This is a high-tech society, yet the technology intrudes upon and complicates life — giant ducts snake through buildings to deliver the “goodies” of modern life, while telephones resemble old-fashioned switchboards, requiring the user to fumble around with cords and connections in order to communicate with others. Similarly, the voluminous paperwork required in order to achieve anything of worth means that the simple matter of air-conditioner repair becomes a major operation that will take days (if not weeks). “Heating engineer” Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) decides to work outside the system and is branded a “terrorist” for his troubles.

As detailed in Jack Matthews’ book The Battle of Brazil, Gilliam faced his own struggles against (what he felt was) heartless bureaucracy when he went toe-to-toe with Universal President Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam was fighting to retain final-cut rights on the film, but Sheinberg wanted a complete overhaul of Brazil, essentially removing the entire third act and thereby radically altering the film’s tone and themes. Its US release was delayed indefinitely, leading to a very public, very ugly tussle between the writer/director and the studio — at one point, Gilliam even took out a full-page advertisement in Variety in order to pressure Sheinberg into giving his film a US release. When Brazil won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, Universal’s hand was forced and the film saw release in the US in late 1985 (10 months after its UK release).

Did Brazil deserve such accolades? Some felt at the time that the LA critics were more enamoured by the “David and Goliath” struggle of Gilliam versus Sheinberg than by Brazil itself, but the passing of 22 years gives us a fresh perspective. Putting aside the politics of its production, Gilliam and co-writers Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown made a modern classic filled with wit and insight into the absurdities of our ordinary lives. Brazil is a dark film whose tension is derived mostly from the juxtaposition of slapstick and screwball comedy with dramatic and shocking scenes depicting the horrors of this totalitarian state. The only escape from a world so lacking in compassion, it seems, is through the creation of a fantasy life within your own imagination.

But even if the world is cruel, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity,” as Hanlon’s Razor so succinctly puts it. Evil exists not so much in the hearts of men as in the incompetence and pedantry of faceless bureaucracies — this is the true message of Brazil.

(star)(star)(star)(star)(star)

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24 05 2010
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus « Dion at the Flicks

[…] who saves the day, being totally believable as Tony in a third act right up there with that of Brazil (1985). Ledger’s cocky, manic performance is transformed into cool egotism by Farrell, as […]

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