Saturday 1 December 2018

1,001 Films: "Brazil" (1985)

It's not hard to see why the executives hated Terry Gilliam's futureshock opus Brazil. Populated by grey suits on concrete sets, the film devotes at least its first hour not to the flamboyant freehand fantasy of which the director is so clearly capable, but to the business of scrupulous office drone Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) as he goes about trying to rectify the bureaucratic error that saw one Archibald Buttle, rather than his namesake Tuttle, rounded up and carted off by totalitarian troops. Lowry's dreams of flights and freedom fighters suggest a Billy Liar-like desire to escape his humdrum reality, but he's ground down by the bastards around him - Ian Holm as a needy middle manager; Robert de Niro and Bob Hoskins as varyingly threatening rival contractors; Michael Palin as a company man with a dark side - as well as by random terrorist atrocities that play as merrily in the post-9/11 era as they must have done upon first release at the time of the IRA. His colleagues' surprising choice of desktop viewing - taken with that title - hints that what we're watching is meant as Casablanca via the gloominess of Orwell's (or Michael Radford's) Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Yet if Brazil was always going to be too deadpan to satisfy mass audiences (its idea of a romantic come-on is "care for a little necrophilia?", which is inspired in the context), the completeness of its vision really does creep up on you, given patience and close attention. It's an oddly realistic-seeming sci-fi movie that manages to see several things to come, not least the corporate absurdity of Office Space and the many versions of The Office, but which remains cherishably perverse at heart. You suspect the studio wanted science fiction of scale, to sit alongside The Terminator and Back to the Future; what Gilliam actually delivered was a dystopian fable about the petty frustrations and irritations of modern life. Brazil is second only to Blade Runner, amongst 1980s films, in putting up on screen a world where nothing - not the screwy plumbing, nor the malfunctioning electrics - really functions as it should. This equally applies to the ending, which remains a mess, but amongst the otherwise supremely organised disorganised clutter, there's a wealth of left-of-centre detail that demands multiple viewings to fully absorb: to take but one fifteen-minute segment, you get fresh-air dispensers, men in chemical suits playing volleyball, and kids receiving credit cards as Christmas gifts from shopping-mall Santas. Gilliam junks the utopian ideals of so much sci-fi in favour of a good-humoured pessimism about the direction society was headed in: as time goes by, he reckons here, things don't seem to get any better.

Brazil is available on DVD through Fox, and to stream via Amazon Prime.

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