Terry Gilliam Criticism

Start Your Free Trial

Download Terry Gilliam Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Fred Glass (review date Summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Brazil, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer, 1986, pp. 22–8.

[In the following review, Glass examines the psyche of Sam Lowery, the main character in Brazil, and the cause of Sam's fantasies.]

During the long-awaited year 1984 a veritable deluge of articles, books, talks, speeches and more were given over to discussion ad nauseam of Orwell’s book and prophecies. Nineteen Eight Four became the province, in 1984, of a battle for the most prevalent interpretation of totalitarian society—whose resembles it more, “theirs” or “ours”: the USSR or the USA. It should have surprised no one that most leftist accounts attempted to tabulate the qualities of life in America in the eighties that clearly showed capitalism as finally having achieved Orwellian thought control—TV, governmental newspeak, powerless manipulated masses, big science. The right, meanwhile, redoubled its efforts at painting the Soviet Union in the drabbest of greys, with police helmets atop the dour heads of half the population stomping across the supine bodies of the other half.

What a relief, then, that Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the following year, rose above the general soporific level of that ideological fray to propose for us a critical vision of the world at once more sophisticated than Orwell’s and more challenging to its audience—a work perhaps doomed to lesser status in cultural history for these very reasons. For while Nineteen Eighty Four, within Orwell’s intent, may with some legitimacy be claimed by both left and right as “proof” of the politics of each, Brazil’s critique of our world, in its ambiguities and twilit despair, is not so easily digestible. There can be no doubt that the main fire in this movie is trained toward bureaucratic consumer capitalism. And yet its portrayal of a working class irrelevant and oblivious to the horrors of everyday life under an authoritarian regime leaves little room for socialists to claim the film as their own. What, then, is Brazil?

Referring years later to his second film, Before the Revolution, Bertolucci said, “We all misunderstood Brecht at that time.” Maybe it took Godard’s explorations in political cinema of the late sixties and early seventies to clear away the lingering ghost of the German playwright for modern left wing film-makers. Godard’s emphasis on the author’s end of things proved, if nothing else, that a popular cinema demands popular means, even if an ultimate goal remains the subversion and destruction of its own illusionistic devices. The closest Godard ever came to realizing such a balance in his work was arguably Tout va bien; while Bertolucci swung back to self-confessed bourgeois film-making in 1900 to communicate the PCI’s schematic appraisal of Italian events. Ten years later, building on the experiments of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam has produced in Brazil his variant of Brechtian cinema for the eighties. But this political film-maker’s worldview comes across with substantial differences from his predecessors, whose working-class focus and optimism have given way in Gilliam’s work before certain stark truths about late capitalist culture.

Brazil is a tragicomedy about the relationship between imagination and fantasy, and about the ability of a society (“somewhere in the 20th century,” as the opening sequence informs us) to constantly transform the energy of the former into the dead weight of the latter. Excellent performances by the principal actors abets the direction by Gilliam, which in places falls short of the brilliant writing by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown. The structure of the film’s plot is relatively simple, even if the plot itself—and everything else about the film—is extraordinarily complex. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who works in a giant bureaucracy (the Ministry of Information) escapes from his feelings of guilt and the oppressive tedium of his life through fantasizing....

(The entire section is 21,861 words.)