‘It’s not my department’: A Review of Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil has eluded me for many years now. After having read, watched, and played through many dystopian worlds, I have finally decided to watch the cult 80’s film. Needless to say, the movie was something I felt warranted another examination. In an earlier review we analysed Brazil as the Christmas cyberpunk text, but there is something else here that needs to be understood. Something else that needs to be revisited. And something else that needs to be said.

Gilliam’s Brazil depicts low-level bureaucrat, Sam Lowry (portrayed by Jonathan Pryce), a man that yearns to escape the monotony of his day-to-day life. Trapped in a world sealed with red tape, he daydreams of himself as an avian hero saving a beautiful damsel above the poisoned clouds.  Investigating a case that led to the wrongful arrest and eventual death of an innocent man instead of wanted terrorist Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), Lowry meets the woman from his daydream (Kim Greist), and in trying to help her gets caught in a web of mistaken identities, mindless bureaucracy and lies.

We can not only visually see the ecumenopolis—a world covered in city—but feel it. Akin to how Fritz Lang engineered his sprawl in Metropolis, Gilliam manufactured a wonderfully terrifying future (or past, or future-past) cityscape. It was, at times, hard for me to sit through the film as I felt as if I was being choked by the sprawl depicted on screen. The waste, the scum, and all the interconnected ducts strangle the viewer as Lowry merely wanders throughout the city. Cyberpunk is all about the ever-expanding sprawl, and we are only ever privy to anything natural in the illusory dreams Lowry has sporadically. Gilliam does what Gibson did in Neuromancer and then some, as I’ve never felt so appalled by anything visually in film. I never felt so apprehensive or even so congested before.

I was also enthralled by Gilliam’s use of technology. Unlike in the typical cyberpunk text, Gilliam’s technology is a cobbling of the antiquated and the new, or a mixture of the useful and the useless. On a visual level, the technology is pointless and even cluttered, only adding to the congested aesthetic the film tries to strangle the audience member with. But when we delve deeper into Gilliam’s use of technology, there is a latent cynicism that permeates the gangliness of the machines that Lowry encounters throughout the film. The phone system, for instance, is a mess of improper jacks that need to be plugged in correctly to work properly. The air ducts are nothing but a maze of corrugated junk that works on its own terms. The minuscule computer and even tinier car are mere mockeries of their real representatives. Nothing works well or works at all, this being representative of not only the people, but the bureaucratic system Gilliam’s depicts.

Which leads me to further examine the system Gilliam so lovingly despises. The audience already understands that the system is flawed. From the initial explosion during the first few moments of the film’s opening, to the extremely hurried nature of the people themselves. The system is a mess. This initially confused and irked me when trying to settle in. The pace was too much, the dialogue too breakneck for me to follow. That is of course the point of the film—the audience is supposed to feel uncomfortable. Though the sprawl and technology work as symbols of this uncomfortable system that is held together with pieces of paper and signatures.

One of my favourite scenes that is indicative of such nonsense just so happens to occur in a restaurant. Eating alongside his mother (Katherine Helmond), her friend, and her friend’s daughter, merely ordering a meal must be done so by stating the number on the menu. The waiter cannot move without hearing the number. Absurd, yes. Hilarious, absolutely. Relatable in a world that is becoming systematically designed around numbers, signatures, and pointless jargon, of course.

The weakest parts of the film centre around the film’s cast. While not terrible, there were times in which Pryce and Greist felt a little bland and shallow. This may have been on purpose, but when bit characters like Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), Jack Lint (Michael Palin), and Tuttle are so outrageous and wonderful to watch, you end up wanting more from them and less from the two central characters.

On a superficial level, one might not understand as to why I would even consider Brazil to be cyberpunk. Cyber is in the name, one might say. It must feature technological marvels that are used to corral or subjugate the masses. Punk is in the name, so it must be trying to go for an aggressive, edgy aesthetic that aims to subvert the science fiction genre. However, the genre (and the majority of its subgenres) have been expanding throughout the years, especially now that we are living in a scarily similar world to William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brazil is everything those texts are and more, as Gilliam does what Gilliam does best—magically satirize the world in a lovingly depicted dystopia. What else is cyberpunk if not a messed-up parallel of our own hubris? Brazil is a must watch for those who love their dystopias, especially those who adore the works of Huxley and George Orwell. The world is a mess and it is our own doing, but to watch Gilliam’s magic unfold before your eyes is a treat to behold. It is dark. It is dreary. It has one of the greatest (and bleakest) endings. Watch, rewatch, and enjoy the magic beneath the amber moon.

Brazil – 8/10

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Written by Dann Lewis
Writer. Real Doctor. Phony Academic. Cyberpunk. Hobby Hero.
  1. when i was a kid i watched this movie expecting something like time bandits. it completely ruined my day. years later i watched it as an adult and it ruined my day again. every year or so i bust out the bluray and watch it because it’s one of my favorite films and i feel like i finally GET it.
    also that baby mask is creepy as fuck.

    • My favorite scene, and I didn’t fully grasp it until I was watching it in German and unable to keep up with the dialogue due to my bad German and forced to mainly focus on the visual aspect of the film, was when Tuttle (DeNiro), the rogue fixer of broken apartment sytems without due bureaucratic process, swings to the street, is overcome, and disappears in a whirlwind of swirling forms and seemingly random paper …

      the paperwork caught up with him.

      The visual puns and poignancy of the film’s mileau is never more apparent.


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