When I had watched Gilliam’s landmark Twelve Monkeys (1995), I had wrongfully presumed to have experienced the most bewildering piece of science fiction cinema the 20th century had to offer. Brazil not only dwarfs the immense visual feats of its own time by its cerebral imagination, it also establishes ‘retro-future’ as a genre and narrative technique to suck you in. The plot is deliberately distanced from logic for shedding light on the corporate mess of this hyper-capitalistic realm where every move of every person is documented. Welcome to a welfare state that doesn’t give a damn about your welfare.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a well positioned bureaucrat working under the severe Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm). He sets off to correct a trivial error which has immensely unfortunate consequences and finds himself labeled as an enemy of the state. As he delicately wallows through the parasitic web of corruption he finds a known fugitive called Jill Layton (Kim Greist). This woman has been haunting Sam’s dreams for as long as he cares to remember. He catches on to her like a leech and the duo warily crawl through the hazy painting of the film’s proceedings. Gilliams and his co-writers make Brazil a hamartia in the seemingly arrogant perfection of the system; their bloodthirsty vengeance on contemporary literal forms is made stunningly lucid. The story coils into itself instead of growing into an idealistic conclusion, filling us on little visual details about the bizarre amount of paperwork and the perpetually steaming ducts which hiss with menace. The sense of humor cuts in a little too sharp when we realize that Brazil is about one man’s desperation to get the rest of the human race out of it. The atmosphere of the film is freakishly tense: all the crazed illusions fueling the heavy claustrophobia of its setting.
Gilliam’s vision of Brazil is so deliberately away from humanity that dreaming about living a happy life with a loved one becomes an act of treason against the state. Many complaints about the film frequently assault the apparent senselessness of its third act, citing the visual absurdity of the scenes and saying that the allegories do not stick. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So the terrific performances, the surreal Dali-esque photography, the murky lighting and the mystifying screenplay form together a puzzle. A puzzle that is insightful enough to ask important questions about the time we live in, and bold enough to admit that it doesn’t have the answers.
After 29 years, Brazil still leaves an indelible impression. It is a sci-fi opera set in a Marxian dystopia. Told with the flummoxing accuracy of a Dostoyevsky story. On drugs. Good luck not having your mind blown.