Thursday, August 30, 2007

Brazil (the film)...

I've finally had a chance to watch the renowned black and futuristic comedy Brazil by Terry Gillian (of Monty Python fame). I previously watched bits and pieces of it and they got me greatly intrigued. This is without a shimmer of doubt one of the most interesting and well made movies ever to come out of Britain. Yet chances are that you haven't seen it yet: hardly a blockbuster or a box office success, this cinematic gem is too jam-packed with multiple themes and is too dark and non-linear to entertain the many. If you've been raised on a diet of templated contemporary Hollywood standard fodder, then this film is unlikely to sustain your attention for too long.

And yet, released 17 years ago, the movie's themes have more resonance with the modern world now than they must have had in 1985. Set in a more or less benevolent totalitarian state, deeply bureaucratic, beset by terrorism and obsessed with security and "information retrieval", it's impossible not to draw parallels with aspects of the modern "war on terror" and modern Western liberal democracies in general. Information retrieval in Gillian's movie is more or less synonymous with detentions in efficient but less than humane ways, rough interrogation and precision torture (all of which the detainees must pay out of their own pocket - accountability being paramount in this state apparatus).

Another important theme is the inefficiency and inhumane coldness of bureaucracy. In the opening sequence, a fly falls into the cogs of an information system, causing an accidental misprint and the brutal arrest and information retrieval of the wrong man: they arrest and torture a someone called Tuttle, when really they're after a renegade heating engineer (played superbly by Robert De Niro), called Buttle.

The main protagonist is also beset with problems caused by his calling of a government agency named Central Services (CS). These are supposed to fix the faulty air conditioning in his flat but can't do anything without the requisite application form. When sometime later the CS engineers (one played by Bob Hoskins) come back, it's with new technology that works as badly as the previous version. Here, De Niro comes to the rescue again (as he also does towards the end).

The style and settings are also a bit of a hat-trick. The scenery is a clever mix of old and new, not dissimilar at all to modern urban settings. WW II Britain-style wall posters with captions like "Be Safe: Be Suspicious", "Help The Ministry Of Information Help You" or "Loose Talk Is Noose Talk" are everywhere.

Here's Wikipedia's
synopsis of the film:
Brazil (which takes place "Somewhere in the 20th Century") recounts the story of Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who is conflicted about his role in an overreaching bureaucracy. We learn that he is initially happy with his "dead end job" and simple life, and that he habitually escapes into a fantasy world of romantic struggles. His contented but lonely life becomes complicated by his mother's attempts to secure him a promotion, the intrusion of a renegade heating engineer, and the real-life appearance of the woman of his dreams.

The movie has strong anti-totalitarian themes, though most of its characters aren't deeply troubled by the intrusion of the government into their lives. Most characters are depicted as simply living their lives, more or less unconcerned with the layers of bureaucracy the citizenry often strains under. Nonetheless, the audience will almost certainly be repulsed by (and probably eerily familiar with) many of the modes of control and obfuscation the system forces onto the country.

The nonchalance of the characters often manifests itself in satirical ways. A receptionist, for example, is seen casually transcribing an off-screen conversation. When interrupted by the main character, she tilts her headphones off of her ears, allowing us to hear the pained sounds of someone undergoing severe torture. After cheerfully addressing the main character, she continues to dutifully record the nearly unintelligible pleas and screams. Terry Gilliam makes sure to point out in the DVD commentary that she is an example of "those kind of people."

Sam, throughout the story, becomes increasingly involved in complicated and life-threatening attempts to secure himself happiness, while also developing a strong hatred for the system of which he is a part. Ultimately, his efforts culminate into a violent and tragic climax, the outcome of which depends entirely on his friends' loyalty to Sam over their loyalty to the system that controls them.

Although certainly not one of the most watched movies ever, Brazil has gained considerable following, bordering on cult status. It's even got its own independently edited FAQ page...

My advice? Get to watch this if you can...

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