Why I Love Brazil
By Daniel Santelli Jr., BMFI Programming Intern
One of the reasons I go to the movies is to see something I can’t see anywhere else. Cinema, like many other art forms, has the power to transport the spectator to another world and visualize sights beyond those of the real world and our imaginations. Even movies grounded in a realistic location possess the power to defamiliarize its setting when the narrative is injected with a heightened sense of fantasy (Leon: The Professional is a popular example, Eyes Without a Face a more obscure one). By the time I was eight, I’d made my way through classics such as The Wizard of Oz, The Night of the Hunter, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, King Kong, and Hitchcock’s Psycho—the latter without the consent of my parents. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I would encounter the wondrous cinematic nirvana that is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is showing at BMFI as part of The Late Show series on Friday, July 6 at 11:30 pm.
|Sam Lowry: Dream warrior (Jonathan Pryce) takes flight in Brazil.|
Nothing short of a masterwork, Brazil’s episodic narrative concerns Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a working-class, thirty-something, low-level government employee. He’s content with his position and frustrated by his friends' and mother's persistent attempts to promote him. His job becomes even more hectic when a faulty computing error sends out an incorrect arrest warrant. These conflicts combine to cause Lowry’s life and career to spiral out of control. His only escape into pure happiness is through his dreams, where he’s dressed in metallic armor and sports mechanical wings. The film is populated with an array of bizarrely wonderful characters, including Sam Lowry’s plastic surgery-obsessed mother (Katherine Helmond), Sam’s long-time friend, Jack (Michael Palin), and Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro, in a small, but pivotal role), a heating engineer/freedom fighter.
|Noir-ish lighting greets Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), as he arrives for his first day of work at Information Retrieval in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.|
Having grown up in Boardman, Ohio, I can say that it was, more or less, like being raised inside of a cardboard box. There’s little to do in the way of sightseeing and very limited opportunities for children to engage in activities outside of sports and the library. Being the son of a musician-turned-psychologist (Mom) and a steel engineer (Dad), it seems almost baffling that my principal interest would be movies. Furthermore, my insatiable desire for movies grew into a near unhealthy obsession, proved by my constant request to stay up late to watch Turner Classic Movies and my sneaking downstairs to watch my father’s video collection after dark on Saturdays—which is how I finally saw Brazil.
Viewing the movie in 1998 on VHS, I was confounded by the movie's politics, but entranced by the surreal visuals and sight gags. The sight of Robert De Niro wrestling through an endless maze of air ducts and wires was always a chief favorite. In fact, it inspired me to replicate the look of the Tuttle character for a failed Halloween costume. Even for a 132-minute film, there was never a moment in which I was bored and, more than any movie at the time, I identified with the plight of the main character, Sam Lowry.
|Sam Lowry, slugging through yet another dull day of bureaucratic madness at Information Dispersal.|
Interestingly enough, it’s important to note that Sam Lowry is one of the few “reactionary” characters in modern movies. In a time when screenwriters and directors are consistently reminded that characters should act on personal motivation and in response to the actions of opposing characters, it’s a breath of fresh air to view this unusual characterization of a man who simply reacts to the situations around him. Sure, Sam Lowry’s objective could be labeled as “to achieve happiness”, but he’s already achieved it at the beginning of the picture. He’s a middle-class individual working as a low-level typist in a bureaucratic office, but persistently states that he’s content with his position. Only when he accepts promotion to Information Retrieval—because he wants to discover the identity of a mysterious woman (Kim Griest) in his dreams—is he bewildered by the increased workload and sinks into sadness. Lowry’s tendency to react, as opposed to act, resembles film scholar David Bordwell’s dictum on character psychology (identified as “psychological causation”) in art films in his essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”:
“…whereas the characters of the classical narrative have clear-cut traits and objectives, the characters of the art cinema lack defined desires and goals. Characters may act for inconsistent reasons (Marcello in La Dolce Vita) or may question themselves about their goals (Borg in Wild Strawberries and the Knight in The Seventh Seal). Choices are vague or nonexistent” (96).Oddly enough, Sam Lowry is one of the film characters with whom I most identify. As a teenager, you’d find me seated amongst horror fan boys in the local movie house watching obscure Lucio Fulci movies. Other times, I’d simply be at home reading up on Freud, dutifully finishing homework, or attempting to crack the code on how to write a proper, filmic setpiece. Many of my peers might’ve perceived these activities as mundane, but, like Lowry, I stuck to what got me the most pleasure out of life. My attitude towards grade school was almost a mirror image of Lowry’s attitude toward work: make one’s way through the day and don't allow oneself to get involved in anything that would terminate one’s own happiness.
|Dream warrior Sam Lowry unmasks the dreaded metallic samurai haunting his nightmares in Brazil.|
I might not possess all the “reactionary” characteristics of Sam Lowry that I once did; I’ve since become someone who ambitiously pursues new opportunities and challenges. Nevertheless, I believe that any post-graduate in their early 20s can identify Lowry’s state of aloofness. No matter what someone’s plans, hopes, and dreams are, the life of a post-graduate is strange, mysterious, conflicting, and life-changing. You’re not sure what’s coming at you, let alone whether you can deal with it or not, and one simply tries make it through life one day at a time. Lowry very much embodies this: he is baffled by the society he lives in, the corrupt government, and, despite being in his thirties, is still unsure enough to state “I don’t know what I want” in one particular scene. As Sam Lowry, Mr. Pryce is eloquent and sincere, compelling yet vulnerable, and perhaps Gilliam’s answer to Woody Allen’s recurring central characters. He’s an idealist living in a world where every citizen’s future is mapped out from the get-go.
|Sam Lowry's dream girl, Jill Layton (Kim Greist).|
Having revisited Brazil at least a dozen times, I’m surprised at how fresh the movie after the 27 years since its release. While there is some material that is of its time, there is a timeless quality to the political commentary that makes the humor endure. I often find myself laughing hysterically at one particular bit when Sam enters his new office at Information Retrieval and engages in a tug-of-war over desk space with the conspicuous Harvey Lime (played by the film’s screenwriter and frequent Gilliam collaborator, Charles McKeown).
None of this would be possible without the directorial vision of Terry Gilliam, one of cinema’s great visionaries. He marries the melancholic tone of Orwell’s 1984 with the absurdist humor of Monty Python to create a poignant satire of modern society. His mannerist camerawork and staging border on feverish and hallucinatory, but that just furthers the effect. His most significant achievement was making a movie that is at once political, personal, and visionary—there’s no other movie that looks, sounds, or even remotely feels like it. It’s purely a tightrope act: Gilliam climbs the ladder, walks across the tightrope, keeps on going, and never looks down.
|Director Terry Gilliam's surreal signature style envelops every nightmarish frame of Brazil.|
Alongside David Lynch’s equally deranged and surreal Blue Velvet, Brazil remains, for me, the highpoint of 1980s cinema. Not everyone agreed. America’s most popular film critic, Roger Ebert, found the movie “very hard to follow” and claimed that it was “awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline.” Pauline Kael praised Gilliam’s vision as an “original, bravura piece of moviemaking,” but found the drama lacking and Pryce’s performance to be “charmless”. The film’s reputation and popularity have risen dramatically since its release; now it is a cult film favorite and considered a modern masterpiece. Even more so, the film’s satirical jabs at ‘80s politics and pop culture (Helmond’s plastic surgery process is simultaneously abhorrent and humorous) have positioned it in a pantheon alongside Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as one of cinema’s most potent satires. At the very least, Brazil is a visual feast for the eyes. At the best of times, it’s transcendent. As Ebert used to note, it’s the kind of movie you get when the inmates start taking over the asylum.
Dan Santelli, BMFI's Programming Intern, is a 2012 graduate of Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Film and Media Arts. A lifelong cineaste, his favorite films (in no particular order) include Leon: The Professional, The Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil, Blue Velvet, Brazil, Apocalypse Now, Dressed To Kill (1980), Halloween, and Les Yeux Sans Visage.