Terry Gilliam’s inexplicably named 1985 masterpiece is one of the most pertinent warnings against the future I have ever seen-unsurprising since it is based on George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-four, surely the last word in dystopian fiction. However, Brazil despite its very worldly and grim origins achieves what I thought was impossible: It makes an optimistic fantasy-comedy out of Orwells material.
For those of you who have never read Orwell, you cannot conceive the surprise at realising it could be done; for me it was like watching a tractor give birth to a kitten. Nineteen Eighty-four is the feel-bad book of all time. It depicts a world in which totalitarianism has completely dominated the world; the three super-states which now rule are perpetually at war with each other, while systematically oppressing and terrorising the people they rule over. Privacy is nonexistent, and unorthodox thought punishable by death. The unhappy hero furtively rebels against the government by 1. Keeping a diary and 2. Having a loving sexual relationship.
Brazil retains many of the themes and motifs of Nineteen Eighty-four, but Gilliams makes the film not only enjoyable but addictive. Brazil focuses on the potential dangers of where society may be headed, but observes the dangers of bureaucracy as much as totalitarianism. This is an improvement in itself. It is easier to laugh at the grim idiocies of a society where failure to receipt a cheque is listed as a crime against the state. It also shifts the focus to an equally horrific but-perhaps-more readily possible state of affairs. The society portrayed is also a lot less downtrodden and a lot more resistant, with terrorist bombings and underground activism playing a considerable part in the plot. Optimism and escapism are two very consistent themes in this film-ones less prominant in Nineteen Eighty-four. The inhumanity of bureaucracy is set as a background the hero (Jonathan Pryce) strives to escape from, first passively through his daydreams, then actively through his pursuit of romance. The daydreams are truly beautiful, with the hero cast as a superman-type figure with an inexplicable haircut, gliding through a fantasy wonderland.
As the hero becomes more active, the daydreams become correspondingly darker. The pursuit of romance and rebellion against the state are reflected dazzlingly in the heroes subconscious in a way that brings something very fresh and new to a relatively drab idea. This approach to the story of Nineteen Eighty-four even tempers a truly hideous ending into something comparatively bearable. The heroes torture at the hands of the thought police in Eighty-four is neatly avoided in Brazil. Instead the director wisely opts to show the deliriums of a crazed subconscious in a series of nightmare sequences reflecting the themes of inhumanity, escapism and romance.
The stress on optimism in a film like this is an example our film industry ought to follow; in an adaptation of that grimmest of tomes, Gilliam portrays society very much alive and kicking; in our social atmosphere there are plenty who might do the opposite. In the approach to a torture scene he focuses on the humanity of the victim; a pornographic focus on pain was the norm for some directors even in the Eighties. To make a compelling, optimistic film is one thing. To make it out of a mine for pessimism is another. Thank you Terry Gilliam.