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BRAZIL (director/writer: Terry Gilliam; screenwriters: Tom Stoppard/Charles McKeown; cinematographer: Roger Pratt; editor: Julian Doyle; music: Michael Kamen; cast: Jonathan Pryce (Sam Lowry), Kim Greist (Jill Layton), Ian Holm (Mr Kurtzmann), Michael Palin (Jack Lint), Robert De Niro (Archibald Tuttle), Katharine Helmond (Mrs Ida Lowry), Peter Vaughn (Helpmann), Bob Hoskins (Spoor), Ian Richardson (Warren), Jim Broadbent (Dr. Jaffe), Kathryn Pogson (Shirley Buttle); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arnon Milchan; Criterion Collection; 1985-UK)
“The bleak Brazil reaches for greatness but just falls short.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Terry Gilliam (“Jabberwocky”/”Time Bandits”/”The Fisher King”) directs an imaginative satire on modern technology in the near future that blends together science-fiction (with Big Brother references to Orwell’s 1984), scathing black comedy and fantasy. Some critics aptly called it “retro-futurism,” in its whacky dystopian fablelike aspects it also manages to skewer bureaucracy, the New Age need to be young, nerdy dreamers who want to be action heroes and repressive security measures that society has to endure so the government can catch terrorists (certainly a relevant comment for today’s Patriot Act, which the Bush administration has abused by moving the country closer to a totalitarian state by curtailing certain civil liberties like the habeus corpus).

It’s rather thinly plotted but that shortcoming is overcome by its splashy visual imagination, its eye kept on the ball that the government abuses its power over real threats (bombings take place in crowded public places on a regular basis) and its keen sense of scatological and acerbic humor. What it never overcomes is that it’s gimmicky, dulls out in stretches, is overblown and overlong. The screenplay is by the American former animator Gilliam, the playwright Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown. The film’s title refers to the popular Latin song from the late 1930s by Arry Barroso.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a drab dutiful gray-suited bureaucrat working in the records department for the inept Mr Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), who can’t make decisions without becoming paralyzed with fear that he’s screwing up and will be punished. The loner Sam lives a fantasy life, dreaming of meeting his dream girl as a winged-hero rescuer, and has to endure a bossy socialite mother, Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond), who is under the care of plastic surgeon Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent) to look younger. Mom resents that her son has no ambition and uses her pull with Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughn), the powerful head of the Ministry of Information, to get her son a promotion to the prestigious “Information Retrieval” department.

Sam, at first, turns down the promotion, but after an office mishap at the “Information Retrieval” department, as a fly changes a “T” to a “B” on a typed report, with the result that an innocent worker named Buttle is brutally arrested in front of his wife and children and tortured to death in place of a free-lance air conditioning repairman named Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), who is taken for a ‘terrorist’ because he doesn’t follow bureaucratic orders and so to protect himself acts as an armed proletarian commando. Feeling contrite about the mix-up, Sam volunteers to deliver in person a refund check to the victim’s traumatized widow. Also that night, Sam’s air-conditioner goes on the blink and Harry Tuttle intercepts his call to Central Heating and quickly fixes it, but when the authorized repairmen show up– the arrogant petty tyrant repairman, Spoor (Bob Hoskins), breaks it again because it wasn’t fixed according to company policy.

When Buttle’s neighbor, Jill Layton (Kim Greist), tries to file a wrongful arrest report, she discovers the bureaucrats will not admit mistakes and she ends up in deep trouble under heavy guard in the “Information Retrieval” department. But company man Sam recognizes her as his dream girl he always has fantasies about, and decides to rescue her despite putting both his career and life in jeopardy. Because the society is so cold and fearful, Jill doesn’t trust him even as the love-starved Sam is willing to give up so much to help the poor lorry driver.

Jack Lint (Michael Palin) is an old friend of Sam’s family and the department’s top interrogation specialist, and does a good job of pretending to be Sam’s best friend. He’s the one who works the torture chamber that got Buttle and Sam is heading in that direction, to be crushed by the system, if he doesn’t wise up and act more cunning over his romantic delusions.

With whiffs of Kafka, Orwell, Fritz Lang’s “M,” and Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the bleak Brazil reaches for greatness but just falls short. Yet it should please the art-house crowd rather than the patrons at the local mall cinema. It has more going for it than most such films have–some would say too much, which makes it feel bloated.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”