Brazil represents the apex of the first wave of Terry Gilliam’s filmmaking career, the moment in which his thematic preoccupations with escapism and his aesthetic grandeur culminated in a statement that still resonates today. Its core concept plays like a cross between George Orwell’s 1984, with its convoluted bureaucratic language of self-denial and repression, and Gilliam’s own “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” segment from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, in which the tedium of corporate paperwork gradually builds pressure until exploding in a collective escapist fantasy.

The film’s hero, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), lives in a world of so much paper it’s a wonder there are still trees to make the stuff. Working a menial desk jockey job as one of an endless fleet of office drones filling out and sorting documents, Lowry’s entire life is written in triplicate, filed with the appropriate bureaus and notarized according to a byzantine set of laws that have dissolved any distinctions between corporate input on IP law and the general role of government on the public good. Expression in this world has not been restricted by autocratic regimes but by the sheer exhaustion of the people themselves, so deadened by their dull work that the only pleasures left are rising up the company ladder.

Lowry struggles with this social structure and existential malaise. When we first meet him, in fact, it is in one of his many daydreams in which he soars through the drab cityscapes of his life on angel wings and does battle with samurai monsters to save a damsel. Lowry’s dreams exist somewhere on the spectrum between the kitschy, late-night samurai movies of TV broadcasts and the abstract jidaigeki of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Seemingly content to stay rooted in his modest position under his nebbish, incompetent boss Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), Lowry is such an anomaly in his lack of careerist ambition that friends and family regard him with suspicion.

The distracted worker finally receives motivation one day when he spots the literal woman of his dreams, whose real manifestation is named Jill Layton (Kim Greist). The two meet when Lowry follows up on a typo that led to a man’s false imprisonment, and soon he is plunged into a life of inadvertent crime that arises solely from a few lapses in proper paperwork that spiral into chaos. It’s difficult to describe the plot of the film without simply relaying its jumble of events, yet in motion the story is remarkably straightforward, balancing Lowry’s infatuation with Layton, his interactions with domestic terrorist Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) and the pressure for promotion placed upon him by his plastic-surgery-addicted mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond). The core pieces all fit together sensibly, providing a stable foundation for the escalating frenzy that comes as small threads unravel into colossal manhunts, threats and even torture.

Presented on those terms, Brazil sounds like a horror film, and in many ways it is, but Gilliam always finds ways to manifest his world’s madness in absurdist terms. For a system predicated on the intense organization of proper documentation, everything in the frame is total clutter, with desks swamped in paper and a vague sense of rot that speaks to skyscraper office buildings gradually decaying from neglect. Tuttle, a terrorist who has made explosive attacks on the government, got his start as a repairman who got so sick of all the forms he had to fill out that he went off the grid. And Ida is presented as a total monstrosity, her face always stretched out like an animal hide left out in the sun to tan. It’s like she wandered in from the Hellraiser dimension, and her grotesque appearance prefigures her son’s fall into madness.

The final act of the film is dedicated to Lowry in free-fall, imagining massive conspiracies that are at once true and also not really conspiracies, as they are largely the public-facing way of the system. Terror and desire battle within the man, and as the lines between Lowry’s daydream fiction and the reality around him blur, Gilliam inserts increasingly deranged glimpses at the hollow core of his world. This is most true of interactions with Lowry’s friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin), a polite family man who handles the government’s torture program with eerie calm. Lint, Layton, Tuttle and other figures all collapse into Lowry’s mental instability as people possibly die, or just vanish, only to reappear as either the real deal or as shades in the hero’s warped perspective.

The finale was originally trimmed by 20th Century Fox for its bleakness, presenting instead a happy ending redolent of the one originally imposed on Blade Runner. Yet the full cut reveals that to be a feint, and while the original US cut is laughable in its incomplete conclusion, it’s somewhat understandable to see why the studio recut what is easily one of the most despairing endings of all time, a defeat so vast and draining it can only be contained by the colossal nuclear silo where Gilliam sets it. For the most part, Gilliam would never again approach the political fury of this movie, instead extrapolating from its purest moments of mentally addled fantasy, yet this still feels like the quintessential Gilliam project, the perfect balance of his demented fairy-tale aesthetic with a subtext strong enough to give that style a shape it too often lacks in the director’s other work.

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