(Spoilers for Brazil follow)
I knew Terry Gilliam was a director. I knew he was part of the original Monty Python crew. I knew he was bat-shit insane. But that’s about as much as I knew about Brazil going in. I’ve seen 12 Monkeys (if you haven’t, you definitely should check it out), so I had really high hopes for Brazil. And, as it turns out, I now have a new favorite Christmas movie. (Sorry, Die Hard.)
One of the reasons I wanted to see this movie is that, like many of us, I have a fascination with dystopian views of the future. Especially ones that were conceived in the past. It’s so interesting to see how people envisioned the future, and to see how much of their vision has become reality.
In Brazil, it’s never quite explained how the world got the way it was. The viewer is dumped right into the middle of the bureaucratic mess that the characters inhabit. The entire world revolves around paperwork. Hell, the events of the entire film are set off by a misprint on an acquisition form. There’s a police force called ‘Information Retrieval’ that basically just goes around arresting people that they view to be ‘terrorists’ or deviants. It’s got a very 1984 vibe to it. The whole world is shrouded in fear. The government controls most aspects of peoples lives.
But there are many other smaller details that make Brazil great. First, there’s the fact that advertising and propaganda is everywhere. The propaganda posters seen throughout the city were inspired by Russian propaganda posters, and some of them actually share the same copy (not in Russian, though). Religion also plays an important part of people’s lives. There’s a scene where Sam and Jill are in a lingerie store (the movie takes place around Christmas, by the way) and a group of people can be seen parading around with a banner that says “Consumers for Christ.”
Also, advertising is everywhere in Brazil. Not in the main city, but when Sam and Jill begin driving on the roads outside of town, the entire road is lined with billboards. Not off to the side like we have them today. The road is literally flanked with advertisements. If that’s not brilliant, I don’t know what is.
It’s that kind of beautiful world building that I really enjoy. When you notice little details in a film instead of the big, obvious ones that are screaming at you, you feel an actual connection with the writer and director. Like you got a little joke that they just snuck into the film.
But one thing disappointed me about the world that Gilliam and the writers created: it’s not really explained too much. I know I’m asking a lot here, but I’d really like to know how the world got to the way it was. Did the ‘terrorists’ strike first, forcing the government to crack down on everything and everyone? Or did the government begin slowly taking away more and more freedom from its people, causing individuals to rise up and fight their oppressors? It’s not that big of a deal, but I feel like the world could have done with a little bit more explanation.
That Damn British Wit
I grew up with Monty Python. Life of Brian, The Holy Grail, and Flying Circus were regulars on Saturdays at my house, and I know that shaped the way I look at humor today.
I watched 12 Monkeys not knowing that Terry Gilliam, its director, was actually part of the original Python crew. But when I discovered this bit of information, it made so much more sense. First and foremost, I think, British humor is about little things. Just like I mentioned above, it’s the little things in Brazil that make it great. The tiny additions that make you feel special because you catch them. If you don’t get it, it’s not going to take away from you understanding the main plot, but it really helps if you do. It’s just like in the late ’90s cult-classic Spaced. There are jokes all over the place, but if you don’t get them, it’s fine. If you do get them, however, it adds tremendously to the experience.
Brazil is very obviously a British movie. Not just because of the accents of the characters, but because of the light peppering of humor. It shouldn’t be a funny movie. It really shouldn’t. There’s so much death, destruction, and torture in this movie that it makes you feel ill at times. It’s really fucked up. But, in true British fashion, the writers of Brazil, toss in little bits of humor to help you cope with the horrors you’re witnessing.
There’s a scene towards the end of the film where one of Sam’s best friends, Jack, (played by Michael Palin, another Python alum) ends up having to torture him for information. One of the officers tying Sam down to the chair says something to the extent of ‘Hurry up and confess, mate. If you hold out too long, you’ll jeopardize your credit rating.’
This moment should not be funny. They’ve spent the entire film showing us the relationship between Sam and Jack and how they’ve known each other since they were kids. They’re friends, and now Jack is having to torture one of the only people in the world that he has a real connection with. But sure enough, the writers had to throw in a joke here. It’s a thing that a lot of serious movies don’t do enough of these days, and it makes me sad. Mostly because I really appreciate some solid comic relief in dramas, even if it is just a slight dusting of comedy. But comedy is all over in Brazil, and it made me appreciate it that much more.
Respect for the Viewer
(I realize I’ve covered this topic before in this review, but I really want to get the point across that the it’s the little things that make Brazil great.)
One thing I really hate is when a movie spoon feeds me information. Like I stated earlier about Spaced and other British comedies, jokes and references and information are all there for a reason. A good writer and director know that certain information should be essential, while other information shouldn’t be. If the viewer can pick up on those non-essential cues and references, then that’s great. But if you don’t, it’s not a big deal. You can still follow the plot at its most basic point.
In the context of Brazil, this concept was front and center. There’s so much going on that it’s even hard to follow the main plot, let alone the subplots, but the writers respect you enough to keep them all going at a fast pace. They don’t try to slow one plot down so you can catch up with another. They want you to be confused and scared all at the same time, just like the characters in the movie. I thought this was a very neat device that the crew used to further the overall feeling of dismay in the movie. It’s maddening to see all this happening at once, but you’d better get used to it, because it’s going to be this way for the next two and a half hours.
I’m definitely watching this again. I need to watch it again. Not out of sheer love for the movie, although I did love it. I need to watch it again to understand what the hell just happened. I want to catch more of the nuance. I want to catch more of the little details that will help it make sense. I’m planning on checking out the other two films in this trilogy, Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Barron Munchausen (1989), to further understand the insanity that is Terry Gilliam. Needless to say, I’d highly recommend this movie to anyone interested in messed up, terrifying tales of a not-so-bright future. Or you could just turn on the news. Whichever you’d prefer.
Reed’s Review Corner:
9.2 creepy baby masks out of 10
Strong British humor throughout
Gilliam makes you think
Christmas setting makes it that much more interesting
Difficult to follow at some points
World wasn’t explained as much as I’d hoped