At The Movies: Brazil (1985)

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Brazil

★★★★☆

1985 • 143 minutes • Universal Pictures

Oh, Terry Gilliam.

As Captain Cinema and I make our way through Monty Python’s Flying Circus as the appetizer portion of every Sunday’s Comedy Brunch, I am filled with nothing but fondness for the American Python. This may be largely motivated by my harsh disillusionment with Eric Idle, my childhood favorite, during Monty Python (Almost) Live, but the Terries (Jones and Gilliam) have proven to be the sweetly off-kilter secret weapons of the troupe this far into series one. Terry Jones’ beautifully daffy characters belie his role in establishing the Pythons’ peculiar brand of comedy; Terry Gilliam’s surreal, irreverent animation perfectly epitomizes the Pythons’ best comedy. The two ended up co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the rest, well, is their respective filmographies.

But well into my teens, all I knew of Gilliam was his work on Monty Python, and that only due to the fact that BBC America ran Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns now and again while I was in middle school. While Madame McBride is an Anglophile par excellence, the Pythons have never been her cup of tea. (Although I have always thought that a lot of Eric Idle’s throwaway female characters have exactly the same avian quality she has.) So no Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for me, let alone The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (And that last one despite the prerequisite Johnny Depp period for young male-attracted folks of the early aughts. Y’all, I don’t make the rules.) It was only the holidays that even brought me to Brazil, since Captain Cinema likes to start off the holiday season with a viewing of the film. (This is largely how it works here at the Church of Bowie; I rent books and leave them about for her to explore, while she commandeers our cinematic voyages. Friendship is a two way street, friends.)

Watching Brazil is akin to running into Terry Gilliam’s almost obscenely fertile imagination at full-tilt. The late Roger Ebert once described Gilliam’s style as “hallucinatory in its richness of detail,” which is incredibly apt. Gilliam is one of the few directors whose abilities line up with their imaginations. Unlike Christopher Nolan, however, it’s not simply a matter of financing (give Warner Brothers a Batman trilogy that makes all the money and wins all the rewards; do whatever you want until you die); Gilliam is willing to do whatever it takes to create his vision in a hands on kind of way. I’m curious to see how Gilliam’s taken to digital effects over the course of his career, but right now, I’m just relieved and delighted to see a film so imaginative and so tactile. It’s an absolute joy to see—every level of production design in Brazil is so rich that it’s no wonder Gilliam’s imagination grew tentacles and sprouted roots in other people’s imaginations.

The opposite of urtexting is returning to the original and seeing it in its pure, superior form. Having long associated Brazil’s main theme with the ad campaign for WALL-E, it was kind of magical to have that association totally melt away in the face of the film it was expressly written for. (It doesn’t hurt that Michael Kamen, one of my very favorite composers, wrote the theme.) There’s quite a lot of Brazil in Tim Burton’s Batman and in the depiction of the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter film series, both quite on purpose. It makes me want to dig into the rest of Gilliam’s filmography just for the visual splendor of it all.

But there are other elements to filmmaking, even if Gilliam’s kitchen sink philosophy sometimes crowds those elements almost out of the picture. The story can get flimsy, even though the ending packs an astonishing wallop, and I occasionally felt like I was wandering from set piece to set piece—in pure delight, of course, but still more set pieces than story. All the actors are incredibly game, from Jonathan Price making Sam Lowry both a dreamer and a bit of a stooge to even the mildly maligned Kim Greist as Jill, the female lead. (Of course, I just might be biased towards practical lady rebels from the eighties.)

All in all, I think I’m more satisfied having Brazil under my belt than as a cinematic experience, although I will be returning to luxuriate in its style. But that’s the beauty of consuming pop culture critically; there’s value in all of it.

My roommate owns this DVD.

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