Sunday, August 23, 2009
A few weeks ago, I finally got around to watching Terry Gilliam's Brazil. I had put it off for a long time, because I wasn't sure if I was actually interested enough to commit to 2 and a half hours of dystopic science fiction. While I am interested in sci-fi, it is usually for the camp factor. There must be gooey/poorly constructed alien/monster puppets, or overacting involved. Anyway, with some encouragement from my girlfriend, I ended up watching the Criterion version of the film, which is probably the most accessible of its several versions. I rented it from an overpriced, but independent place on Cape Cod, which is where I happened to be at the time. I also happened to be living in a hovel with no television (and no DVD player, not surprisingly). As a result, I watched this on a laptop, which undoubtedly diminished the experience a little bit. Regardless, it still managed to leave in indelible impression on me.
While Brazil abounds in constrictive and grotesque alien imagery, at its heart it represents a world we can relate to. This might be the same element that ultimately makes it so disturbing--the juxtaposition of the familiar and the alien. We see a distorted reflection of our institutions that rings true even while it is exaggerated.
Of course, there is not much that is visually familiar about this world at all. In the few exterior shots, the characters walk amongst dark, forbidding buildings that seem to be ripped out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Most of the film, however, is set inside the seemingly endless bowels of the administration in which the buffoonish protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathon Pryce) works an ambiguous desk job.
Within this building, the constrictions of society are symbolized by the physical machinations that disallow free movement, turning the natives of the city into machines. An elevator consistently thwarts Sam's efforts until he finally resorts to the stairwell, and the vast tubing system relays messages to employees, until Sam clogs it, causing an explosion of paperwork.
In addition to the bleak settings, some of the most memorable imagery involves Lowry's clownish mother (Katherine Helmond ), who grows younger by the second due to her cosmetic surgeries. She is pulled and prodded as if she is made out of putty, already more of a mannequin than a person. In one of the final scenes, we witness a funeral for her discarded sack of skin.
Throughout Gilliam's hellish surrealism, the story is made accessible by Lowry, an unambitious, mild-mannered working stiff who, by a mere accident becomes an enemy of the state. His incredibly human motivations ground the film in a dimension that still seems real. Lowry is simply an average man with a superlative fantasy life, and his actions are largely motivated by his crush on Jill (Kim Greist). As Lowry becomes more entrenched, the dreams increase, allowing him, and the viewer, to remain on the precipice without tumbling head-long into the abyss. The mood teeters on the edge of a nightmare as Lowry chases his dream woman in and out of his ethereal subconscious.
Lowry's fiercely beautiful dreams are the best part of the film. First, they are merely escapism, occurring during moments of true slumber. As the film progresses, they become harder to distinguish from reality, until finally, they cannot be distinguished at all. During his torture, Sam slips into a hallucination that becomes his last. He manages to escape the totalitarian nightmare, while the viewer is left to linger on his placid face, still locked into this medieval world.