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The International Writers Magazine: Review

Brazil (1985)
Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Written by Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard.
Starring Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and Michael Palin.

Russ Thomas reappraisal

With such films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Time Bandits behind him, one has to expect a little surrealism when it comes to Terry Gilliam. Although Brazil is an adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eight-Four, his take on it, as can be imagined, is different; his films are distinctive, and this is no exception.

Gilliam borrows ideas from Nineteen Eighty-Four, following a bureaucrat named Sam Lowry (Jonathon Pryce) as he attempts to survive in an authoritarian world. We are introduced to the character during a dream sequence, in which he is flying in amongst some clouds, with a woman. It is this ‘woman of his dreams’ whom he spends a large part of the film trying to find. Along the way, Sam is faced with the problems of a pushy mother, a tedious bureaucracy, a dangerous government and the threat of terrorist bombings. The dream sequences are a continuing motif throughout the film. Unfortunately they look dated, but they work alongside the main storyline to illustrate the events symbollically.

While Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four attempts to warn against such a society, Gilliam satirises it. He seems to have been tired of the way people behave, the government and the public – this can be seen through the nonchalant way in which, for example, people out shopping react to a terrorist bomb. It is people’s inability to care anymore that he portrays. Gilliam tries to satirise the ‘dead-end’ veneer of the society – the content, but isolated, nature of the population. This is the key difference between the film and the book on which it is loosely based; Gilliam is seeing modern society change into what Orwell feared it might.
Realism seems to have been only partly in mind when Brazil was produced. Visually the film is impressive, but often its surreal progression is so hard to follow that occasionally the only things to appreciate are the visuals. And even then, one is hard-pressed to understand those. This was a letdown. If the film was easier to follow, it would be much more likeable.

It is littered with symbolism (especially in the dream sequences), special effects, and deliberately dreary scenery to accompany the mood of the film. It is comic in places, typical of Terry Gilliam’s directing and writing style, perhaps to hook the audience in, or perhaps more on simple whim. Small things in the film are funny. Bob Hoskins vindictive plumber, De Niro as the plumber terrorist, the bubblecar Johnathan Pryce drives, the food in the restaurants...

Nineteen Eighty-Four is not amusing at all – it comes from the mind of a political essayist. However, one can find something humourous in the book; maybe it will be the ridiculous concept of such a dystopian world. But Brazil? Gilliam takes note that we have arrived very close to such a world, and satirises the governmental control, the sobriety of the general public, office jobs and plastic surgery in an even more restrictive, uncaring world than ours.

© Russell Thomas November 2007
rustyrusty <>

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