RetroReviews #53: Brazil (1985)

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JULY 11, 2013 SCREENING: BRAZIL (1985)

To finish out my week of Terry Gilliam films, I decided to take a look at two different versions of the film “Brazil”, (the theatrical version and the “Love Conquers All” version). This is the film that critics widely consider to be the “greatest” effort of Terry Gilliam’s directing career. At least, they feel that way about the theatrical version.

Count me in the minority, because this isn’t my favorite Terry Gilliam movie, nor would I consider it his strongest film overall (I’d probably say my favorite movie is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but I might be biased because its fresh in my mind and I haven’t seen 12 Monkeys in a while). To be fair, however, I still liked Brazil, and I think its worth checking out.

In this case, the film wasn’t what I was expected because the content of the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with the title. If you hope to watch Brazil and see a movie about the nation of Brazil, look elsewhere. The title of the film comes from the song “Aquarela do Brasil”, a catchy tune that is repeatedly played throughout the movie as a reoccurring motif. The actual setting of the movie takes in a vaguely United Kingdom style setting, but occurring in a dystopian futuristic “1984” type society, where big bureaucracies control every aspect of people’s lives. The main difference between than and 1984 (which was probably fresh in the audience’s minds, since the classic John Hurt movie had been released only a year earlier) is that Brazil presents that type of a world in a light-hearted, whimsical tone, and there’s no central “Big Brother” type adversary. Instead of an “Airplane!” type straight out parody of 1984, this film seems more inspired by that type of world as a basis for its comedic setting, in much the same way Dr. Strangelove used the traditionally bleak scenario of nuclear Armageddon to make an over-the-top comedy.

I wouldn’t rate Brazil anywhere near the level of Dr. Strangelove, which really pushed the envelope when it was released in the 1960s. Brazil has much milder humor and some fun ideas, but I thought it was a bit overlong and boring at times. The basic storyline is a case of an identity mix-up because of a computer error, so this film gave us The Big Lebowski before there was The Big Lebowski. Jonathan Pryce is the lead here as a bewildered man who keeps digging himself in deeper no matter how earnestly he tries to resolve the identity crisis problem at the start of the film. He personally considered this film to be his best role, so I’d probably select “Something Wicked This Way Comes” for that honor. Visually the film is great and has some really notable scenes that wow the audience, but both the script and the direction seemed a bit pokey compared to Gilliam’s other films (though this is far better than his first effort, Jabberwocky)

Overall, I can’t help wonder if there’s something I’m missing. Why is it that high-brow critics think Brazil is so “deep” and “brilliant” and “masterful”? It’s beats me. I’ve carefully watched the film three times now with two different edits of the movie, and all I see is a mildly amusing comedy that takes forever to reach its conclusion, and has a twist ending that’s a bit anti-climatic. Fun, yes. Masterpiece, no.

** ½ out of ****

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