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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #83: Brazil

Dystopian movies from the 1980s are a funny thing since we now live in the future of those movies and if you look at the news for more than five minutes it will feel as though we are one bad day away from being into a dystopia. On the plus side, if it ends up looking like the dystopia portrayed in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) at least we will have lovely architecture to look at while the government is busy telling us how to think. This might not be a movie that will cheer you up, but the production design is amazing, the performances are great throughout, and you get to see Robert DeNiro play a maintenance man/freedom fighter.  

I first saw Brazil as a Terry Gilliam double feature at the Universit√© de Sherbrooke’s movie club paired along with 12 Monkeys around ten years ago. Those two films are similar in that they both feature a rather dour future and, as with most Gilliam movies, incredibly intricate sets. However the dystopian future in Brazil is somewhat scarier than the disease-ravaged world of 12 Monkeys, since in Brazil a totalitarian government uses inept bureaucracy and torture to get things done. Sound familiar? Then of course there is the ending of Brazil, which I remember caught me and the other viewers by surprise with its uncompromising dourness.

There are many hints of George Orwell’s 1984 in the non-descript world Gilliam has created. It could be somewhere in America or England given the mixture of British and American characters, but either way it is a world filled with towering buildings, surgery-obsessed rich people, and a bureaucracy so flawed a man is tortured and killed because of a typing error. It is a scary world, but even by today’s standards the special effects are so astounding you can’t take your eyes off the screen. One thing that can be said about Gilliam is that the man likes to think big. A torture chamber could be set in just, well, a chamber. He sets it in a huge cylindrical room that is actually the interior of a power station cooling tower.

Within this world lives a dreamer named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). Sam is focused with just doing his menial government job in a room filled with other people who seem to be doing exactly the same task. Yet at night he has fantastic dreams of being a great knight in shining armour with wings who rescues a beautiful lady. Much to his astonishment, this lady (Kim Greist) exists in his waking life and has a name, Jill Layton. Could dreams literally come true?

Unfortunately Jill becomes a target of the oppressive government when she uncovers an embarrassing bureaucratic error, so Sam tries to become the knight in shining armour he dreams of being, and finds an ally with Archibald Tuttle (De Niro), a maintenance man who became a terrorist when he became fed up with government paperwork. However Jill proves to be elusive since unlike Sam she has never dreamed about him and is too busy fighting her own fights to deal with a complete stranger who tells her he’s in love. It is so nice to see a female character who is reliant enough to rescue herself.

As mentioned the ending to this dystopian love story sends quite a shock to the system, but that does not mean Brazil should be avoided. It is in fact absolutely worth seeing for Jonathan Pryce’s performance as the would-be-hero Sam, Robert De Niro as the most entertaining terrorist you will ever see, and Michael Palin as the world’s friendliest torturer. Given the current rise in far-right politics across the globe and the fact 1984 is once again a best seller, Brazil is worth a re-watch for anyone who feels overwhelmed by current events. Like Tuttle said, “We’re all in this together.”  


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