There are films that move us to tears by the tragic intensity of their subjects, both fictional and factual; there are films that, as Graham Greene once said, succeed to “jerk the waiting tear out of its duct”. And then there are films which are worlds away from lingering even in the periphery of sentimentalism and yet end up stirring some strange feeling of sadness in our hearts and the tears start flowing without warning from eyes that are already stunned by the dazzling images they have witnessed.
It seems unlikely that a film like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a story set in a comically absurd future and intended as an uninhibitedly satirical attack at the omnipresent nature of bureaucracy, would achieve this stature but it is not altogether surprising. Gilliam’s sense of fantasy, of the whimsical, also appeals to the child inside us that still yearns for a long-lost innocence absent in an increasingly material and utilitarian world – think of the endlessly entertaining Time Bandits or the lavishly imaginative The Adventures of Baron Munchausen where imaginative leaps of fancy and myth help the protagonists to escape the humdrum and even horrifying truths of their world. Just as Gilliam unleashes a wild, jaunty sense of adventure and imagination on screen, he also unearths with equal skill unexpected depths of pathos and despair. For escapes never last and imagination always withers in the face of brutal oppression.
But it was in this film that he found a true sense of human resonance; gone are the boyish adventure and the baroque theatricality of the other two films. At a first glimpse, Brazil might be a loosely comic adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, that grim and prophetic novel about a totalitarian future in which truth is erased, falsified and manipulated to keep the helplessly devoted multitudes, who are also constantly spied upon and suspected of psychological betrayal, under the thumb of an omnipresent but possibly non-existent dictator. The world of Brazil, by contrast, is not as bleak as Mr. Orwell’s terrifying vision of paranoia and oppression; there are sudden and inexplicable bomb blasts that might be staged instead of being perpetuated by the infamous terrorist plumber Archibald Tuttle but the supreme ruler of this world seems to be only a dotty old minister who talks in the lingo of a cricket commentator and instead of a regular government, we have what seems to be a bureaucratic behemoth providing everything – from inept air-conditioning services to pages announcing party invitations in song. The office workers carting and disposing of trays and trays of papers to be signed and stamped and recorded steal moments in between to watch reruns of 1940s films and their boss, with an Adolf-Hitler hair-cut and moustache, is a bumbling fool by the name of Mr. Kurtzmann.
Brazil is however mainly about Sam Lowry, one such hapless minion in the daily grind of paperwork, played brilliantly with pathetic despair by Jonathan Pryce. Lowry has a mother who is interested in beautifying herself with the latest de-ageing procedures; he does not possess any ambitions or hopes but this meek man does have a dream, in which he is a dashing knight in shining armour and is rescuing a beautiful young woman from monsters who rampage across the pristine landscape of his fantasies. And one memorable day, he catches sight of that same beautiful face outside his dreams.
There we have the classic story – of a dreamer who seeks to fulfil his dreams despite overwhelming odds and eventually fails hilariously and also tragically to do so. One is reminded here, not of Orwell’s dispassionate prose which carried with it the serious weight of contemporary political ideas but rather the simpler and more timeless story of Chaplin’s Modern Times; one would remember how the Little Tramp and his true love and fellow vagrant nursed the stirring and amusing fantasy of a lovely house with fruits growing by the window for easy plucking and a cow ready for milking by the door. One is then brought back to Lowry’s own dreams – of a virgin landscape where, in the background, a song called Brazil plays soothingly.
One can of course deduce that the dream’s innocence represents an older England – an England untouched by American consumerism. As the dream becomes a nightmare, the concrete blocks of new-world skyscrapers destroy the calm beauty of the landscape forever. Gilliam is, after all, an exile from America, a country that he left in the fear of being misunderstood in a society reigned by paranoia and who adopted a more objective and creatively uninhibited British-ness that is so indispensable in his other works, by his association with Monty Python. But above all these considerations, like the Python classic Life Of Brian, this is the comedy of a man who tries to defy the establishment in a simple pursuit of love and freedom and a poignant, heart-breaking tragedy of his failure to escape.
It is in the climax of Brazil, when, in an Orwellian twist, all hope has run out for Lowry, that Gilliam resorts to imagination, a flight of fancy that gets even more and more surreal by turns. What was merely Orwellian now becomes almost Kafka-esque in its maddening disorientation. We watch, poised on the edges of our seats, scared and amused and befuddled, wondering whether Lowry, this man who only dreamed of and sought of romance and chivalry, would ever escape from the endless routine of bureaucracy, suspicion and mediocrity of his existence. And then it almost feels as if he has made it – after all the startling and unsettling things that happen to him, he seems to have found love and freedom, for once and for all. Or has he really?
It is there where our tears begin to flow. The closing image of Gilliam’s film is one of the most poignant scenes in the history of cinema – a man left alone in a torture chair, given up for good as he gazes dreamily into some unfathomable distance and hums and then sings the titular song, the very song that has been playing in his dreams. The credits begin to roll and we are left with an unforgettable picture of despair and defeat enlivened by the solace of imagination, of doom rendered glorious by escape, an everlasting escape into a world of love, frolic and life.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.