Not quite as straight-faced as Blade Runner, nor quite as farcical as Sleeper, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a dystopian fable of a future overrun by oppressive technology and menacing bureaucracy, falls somewhere in between. It aims to make a serious point about totalitarianism (particularly relevant as it features a misguided war on terrorism) while having a good time doing it. And after all, how serious can a film aim to be when Michael Palin plays the torturer?
Gilliam, who made his mark as the creator of the absurdist animations on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, brings that same visual sense, and sense of humor, to this live-action feature. The very talented and exceedingly likeable Jonathan Pryce stars as a bureaucrat slowly sucked-in to subversive activities when he meets a woman (Kim Greist) that resembles a recurring character in his dreams as an archangel. Robert DeNiro, who receives second-billing, appears on-screen less than Marlon Brando in Superman.
The film is packed reel-to-reel with strikingly inventive imagery that can hardly be described. Gilliam has a truly original, personal, and unique visual style that can so impressive at times as to be eye-popping. Ultimately, it’s the film’s downfall; aside from the uneven pacing (an apparent requisite for “director’s cuts”) the film’s optical barrage becomes a bit exhausting (particularly at 142 minutes!), like listening to three Mozart symphonies in succession, and it takes center stage in the film over, say, a coherent narrative.
Like Blade Runner, it’s heavily influenced by film noir in its lighting and production design; despite all its contemporary razzamatazz, it has a very old-fashioned feel – Jonathan Pryce seems to be channelling Jimmy Stewart in the way he cocks his hat. The film also pays homage to Orson Welles’ The Trial, particularly in its thrilling final reel (if you can muster any more thrills at that point).
All in all it’s a gorgeous, intelligent, well-intentioned flop.