One does not usually think of the movie Brazil when imagining a Christmas film, but I found it the perfect time to watch the film in a new perspective – that of my 40+ year old self. Released in 1985 after a bunch of fights over the final cut and release, it stars Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Sir Michael Palin, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughan and a rather supporting cast. It was written and directed by Terry Gilliam with Roger Pratt heading up the cinematography.
This highly praised film is set in a dystopian future with a science-fiction vibe. Our main character Sam Lowry (Pryce) is one of many nearly identical characters working for the government. Throughout the first few minutes, we get the feeling this is a government of policies and procedures, with forms needing to be filled out in duplicate – or more. Only a few days before Christmas, another worker kills a fly in their office, leading it to drop inside a computer printer which ends up mistyping a person’s name. While this doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem at first, events escalate and snowball into the rest of the film.
When a person is charged with a crime, they are basically kidnapped and everything they do is transcribed and taken down, with a fee, and the accused must not only pay for their crime but for the time and effort to create, interpret and disseminate the information for their case. The fly incident causes a man, Buttle, to be arrested instead of another man, Tuttle, which leads to Sam’s boss having to reimburse Buttle’s widow. This kind of mistake never happens. We also later find out that Buttle’s upstairs neighbor is Jill Layton (Kim Geist), the girl of Sam’s dreams.
Sam tries to find Jill and enlists the help of a new coworker after he is promoted to Information Retrieval, thanks to his mother Ida (Katherine Helmond). He manages to track her down and we go through a good portion of the film with her not trusting him and he trying to win her confidence. He eventually falsifies her death and they use his mother’s home to spend the night together, only to be awoken by a strategic team who takes him in to be interrogated.
He is brought into a giant room and strapped to a chair so he can’t move. There, he recognizes his friend Jack (Michael Palin) as the interrogator and pleads with him to not go through with torturing him. When Jack decides to move forward with the interrogation, he is killed by the real Tuttle (DeNiro), who also shows up throughout the rest of the film, and they escape and blow up the Ministry of Information building. All seems to be going as planned until discarded papers stick to Tuttle and he disappears as Lowry tries to get them off of him. Sam ends up at a church where he sees his mom looking as young as Jill and falls into the casket and finds himself being driven in a small house out of the city by Jill. The conclusion to the film shows this scene is a fantasy, however, as Jack has carried out the interrogation leaving Sam’s mind insane and still dreaming of a life with Jill.
I first tried watching this film as a kid, but the 2 ½ hour runtime was too much for my teen mind to hold attention back then. After being told for years I look like Jonathan Pryce, I put off trying to do a rewatch and really only remember a few scenes and the ending of the film with the interrogation chamber. Doing a rewatch for Heartland Film Review was definitely a treat and I really enjoyed the film.
Watching it in 2020 is no different than watching it in 1985 when it was released. The future technology is both familiar and foreign and its steampunk-esque feel and fits into a dystopian future even though the film says it takes place “in the 20th Century.” I remember at the time the film came out I was a big fan of Monty Python and was expecting something along the line of The Holy Grail. But that film’s involvement with Gilliam and the cast is pretty much where that similarity ends.
The sets are fantastic and large. The scenes inside the Ministry of Information, complete with long tracking shots that lead right up to the boss’s elevated staircase are magnificent and choreographed perfectly. Throughout the film, we see ductwork plays an important part in the future and helps weave us through the many locations depicted.
Like many dystopian futures, there doesn’t seem to be many colors in the future, but the different textures and technology Gilliam brings to life through his cinematography help create an environment that is visually exciting. The industrial look is contrasted by the lush fantasy world Sam escapes to where everything is bright, airy, and slightly blurry. The scenes that take place in Sam’s mind remind me a little of Clash of the Titans.
Variations on the film’s main theme song composed by Michael Kamen provide most of the incidental music in the film to great effect. Just when we think we know where something is going we hear the theme “Braaaaaazil!”
In reading up on the film, I learned about the many artistic differences Gilliam had with the film’s distributor Universal. I can’t go into it in depth in this review, but I am really interested to dig deeper and learn about all of the disputes myself.
After finally watching the film in its entirety (the 2:22 cut), I have to say it was very enjoyable. While it did not win the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Art Direction, its impact on cinema cannot be argued. I highly recommend the film for science fiction and comedy fans both, as well as those studying the craft of moviemaking, emphasizing the spectacular immersion using practical effects can achieve.