Monday, May 7, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #191 - Brazil (1985, dir. Terry Gilliam)

Just before my senior year in high school I kept coming across references to a relatively obscure, yet influential movie from 1985 called Brazil. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I knew that Terry Gilliam had directed it and that musicians I liked and people I respected spoke highly of it. At the time, I had become familiar with some of Gilliam’s work and I had enjoyed movies of his like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King. However, none of this prepared me for what I was about to see. Brazil bursts forth with an unbridled visual creativity while telling a story of dystopian horror that savors details of mundane beauty and absurdity. The summer I turned seventeen, Brazil exploded my expectations of what a movie can be, affirmed my love of art that surprises me, and reminded me of what we all stand to lose in a technology-addled society that prizes conformity and obedience above all else. 
In the performance of a lifetime, Jonathan Pryce combines a guileless charm with a sometimes frantic physicality for the lead role of Sam Lowery, who is part everyman and part Walter Mitty. In his job as a lowly records clerk, Sam discovers an error in the system that sets in motion a series of events that takes him far from the routine drudgery of his nondescript life up to that point. Veteran character actor Ian Holm showcases his strong comic abilities with the role of Sam’s inept and spineless superior in the records department, Mr. Kurtzmann. Michael Palin (Gilliam’s Monty Python colleague) plays upon his intrinsic good-natured amicability to deliver a devastating portrayal of Sam’s friend and professional rival, Jack Lint, who specializes in the deceptively titled practice of “information retrieval.” Best known for irreverent, matronly roles on TV shows like Soap and Who’s the Boss?, Katherine Helmond brings charisma and gusto to her depiction of Ida Lowery, Sam’s outlandish, vain, and controlling mother. Sam’s path crosses with Jill Layton, a truck driver who witnesses the results of the system’s error, and Sam begins to confuse her with a gauzy, angelic figure who floats through his recurring dreams. As Jill, Kim Greist injects an unorthodox, tense energy into what could otherwise remain a thankless love interest role. One of the screenwriters’ best inventions in the entire film is the character of Harry Tuttle, an anarchist heating engineer who serves as the story’s valiant rogue and ignites within Sam a notion of resistance. As Tuttle, Robert De Niro almost steals the show with a robust and droll performance that endures as one of the most captivating, distinctive supporting roles of his career. The cast also includes two memorable supporting turns from longtime character actors who would both go on to much greater notoriety: Bob Hoskins as a dubious Central Services agent and Jim Broadbent as the star plastic surgeon of Sam’s mother’s social circle.

Terry Gilliam put everything he had into making Brazil and because of this, it’s a movie that rewards repeated viewings (I watched it twice in one day in preparation for this post and to be honest, I kind of want to watch it again right now). Working with playwright Tom Stoppard and actor Charles McKeown (who also plays a minor adversary of Sam’s), Gilliam created a totalitarian culture tilted just enough from our own reality that we can still laugh at the absurdity of it all. This trio of writers had a field day with exploring the way euphemisms, bureaucracy, and propaganda can define our relationships, values, and lives. Brazil has inspired a lot of movies over the last thirty plus years, but I’ve never found another one that comes close to reaching the same range of comedic heights and emotional depths.
-          John Parsell

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