Author: Newman, Kim
Date published: January 1, 2012
Dystopia never looked better
A QUARTER-CENTURY ON, TERRY GILLIAM'S Brazil - once nearly junked by studio backers Universal - stands as a lasting classic. Its imaginary but credible oppressive regime combines the worst features of 1940s British bureaucracy, 1950s American paranoia, Stalinist or fascist totalitarianism, and the consumerist ills of the 1 980s, plus what now seems an uncannily on-the-nose vision of the War On Terror as inconvenient restaurant bombings justify a heavy-handed response from the Ministry Of Torture (euphemistically, the Department Of Information Retrieval). Most 1984-style regimes are horribly efficient, but the worst aspect of this dystopia is that it doesn't even work: the plot kicks off with a farcical mistake as a squashed bug falls into a printer, causing an arrest warrant for terrorist heating engineer Tuttle (Robert De Niro) to be applied to innocent Mr. Buttle.
Like Orwell's Winston Smith, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a mid-level functionary of the brutal state who comes through a romantic attachment to align himself with rebellion and winds up squashed and broken by a friendly torturer (Michael Palin escapes his 'nicest man in the world' image as perhaps the most horrible screen villain of the '80s). Gilliam delivers a fantastical setting, from which Sam escapes into even more fantasy as he enjoys romantic illusions (scored with the Latin-flavoured title tune) as an angelic superhero knight who faces up to Pythonesque knock-offs from Japanese giant-monster movies in order to rescue a dream girl (Kim Greist) whose waking-life doppelgänger is a lorry driver intent on shaking things up (her New Wave hairstyle is the only element of the film that comes from the year it was made)...
Perhaps thanks to the involvement of co-writer Tom Stoppard, it's the most dramatically engaging of Gilliam's picaresque films, with outstanding character acting (Ian Holm is a gem as a gutless bureaucrat) and bizarre visuals (embodied by Katherine Helmond as a surgeryobsessed matron with a succession of shoeshaped hats) existing alongside a credible (and horribly fact-based) depiction of a regime which charges victims for the electricity used in their torture.
EXTRAS If you're lucky enough to have the Criterion Collection's three-disc set, you'll need to hang on to it - aside from the (admittedly decent) half-hour on-set doc What Is Brazil?, this is bereft of all the copious extra material (commentaries, interviews, alternative cut etc.) from that high-watermark issue. Still, the Blu-ray transfer - which shows up all sorts of tiny, wonderful details - makes this an essential purchase.
FILM ***** EXTRAS **