Brazil is not set in Brazil, has no spoken reference to Brazil, has nothing to do with the South American country. Every now and then, a character in the film will whistle a snatch of the old Xavier Cugat tune, and that’s enough to give the film its title.

It’s an ironic touch, because the happy world of that snappy song is in direct contrast to the world we find in Brazil. An opening title tells us we are “Somewhere in the 20th century,” and the exact time seems to be the 1984 envisioned by George Orwell—a totalitarian state in which bureaucracy is the overriding, choking reality.

Brazil is the vivid creation of director Terry Gilliam, a member of the Monty Python troupe (the only American Python) and director of Jabberwocky and Time Bandits. Gilliam, who used to do the wild cartoons for the Pythons, has brilliantly created a world of bureaucratic overload. Everywhere, there are pipes and tubes carrying human needs and wastes. The technology of this world seems to be stuck somewhere in the late 1940s—decaying machines, tied together by an advanced computer system, operated by the dour, defeated citizens.

If you can picture England run by Stalin’s iron fist, you’ll get an idea of the society Brazil describes. (When decrying a terrorist bombing, a minister with proper British decorum tut-tuts the attack as “bad sportsmanship.”) The film is full of Orwellian posters with slogans such as, “Suspicion Breeds Confidence” and “Don’t Suspect a Friend—Report Him.” The single most terrifying image in the movie may be the huge billboard, rising above the dingy city streets, that shows a pathologically cheerful family above the slogan, “Happiness—we’re all in it together.”

Through this eye-popping world, Gilliam (who wrote the script with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown) spins the story of a petty bureaucrat (Jonathan Pryce) who lives a good portion of his life in his fantasies—in which he sports wings and armor, and saves his dream girl from outrageous evildoers. Other than that, he just wants to get through reality with as little bother as possible.

He becomes radicalized, more or less, when he spots this dream girl (Kim Griest) in the flesh, and gets himself promoted to better pursue her. In his new position, he sees the horrors of the police state more clearly and finally feels moved to do something about it.

Pryce is superb at portraying this sort of passive protagonist, and the film is full of terrific performers in supporting roles. Michael Palin, a Python cohort, is chilling as a surgeon-torturer; Katherine Helmond is suitably demented as Pryce’s mother, who undergoes grueling facelifts; Robert De Niro is a heating engineer and guerilla hero of the resistance; and Ian Holm, who may go through his career without giving a bad or uninteresting performance (most recently as Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild) is wonderful as Pryce’s highly nervous boss.

Part of Gilliam’s point in all this, of course, is to show that the world of Brazil is already here, and many of the terrifying attitudes and policies are recognizable. He does this with horror, humor, and sometimes obviousness; but always with vigor.

It’s a relief that Gilliam’s version of the film, which almost didn’t make it out intact in the United States, is the one we’re seeing. Brazil has its own rhythms and rules, and the version we see is true to those rules—and to the mad inner workings of Terry Gilliam’s mind.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Gilliam came to Seattle when Brazil came out and I interviewed him during his limo ride to the airport as he left town, an interesting setting that only added to the fun of the interview. I remember two things well: he said that he lived in London because it was the city where he was “less unhappy” than he was anywhere else, and he talked about the technical process he’d been working on for making a horse split into two parts, which I guess was preparation for Baron Munchausen. I’ve never been convinced Brazil is a great movie, although I like it. Gilliam is a filmmaker who makes great pieces of movies, and perhaps this is the closest he came to sustaining an entire picture at a pretty high level.

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