Science fiction isn’t about the future. It just happens to be set there.
…So goes a common argument, and one relevant to Brazil. As emphasised by its title card, which
informs us it is set “somewhere in the 20th Century”, it isn’t a film about the future, in any way that matters. It’s about the now. Or the ‘now’ of the early 1980s, at least. The trends it picks out of society are exaggerated, making the film more a caricature of the time than a prediction of the future.
But it is a proper sci-fi film, one which delights in exploring its world of Blade Runner-esque neon lights and unfamiliar technology. Then again, it’s hardly straight-down-the-line stereotypical science fiction. Our hero is one Sam Lowry, a small-time civil servant. For him, at least, the world of the tomorrow is very much like our own, but with an exaggerated emphasis on the right paperwork. Meanwhile Lowry dreams, in exquisite fantasy sequences, of being free and gliding through the clouds, and of one woman in need of saving. As is the way of these things, he spots her in the waking world and becomes obsessed.
The backdrop to all this is wonderfully rich, taking from contemporary trends and extrapolating them to their illogical conclusions. And in the great tradition of these things, each feels just as relevant today as it must have in 1985:
Plastic surgery and the resulting fetishism of looks and youth. The emptiness and loneliness of the job/consumerism cycle. But most of all, the frustration of bureaucracy and its unwavering faith in machines and processes, which are showed right at the beginning to be flawed. For Archie Tuttle–sorry, Buttle, at least, fatally so.
Which doesn’t sound too cheery, does it? Brazil hit me at the exact right moment, around the time I read Catch 22, and after two years at a government-initiative school that was restrictively bound to its own rules and regulations. It was a call to arms for the 16 year old me, echoing my discoveries of how unthinking people with power could be, and how impersonal and businesslike life in any institution can feel. It cemented a lot of very things in the mind of Serious Teenage Alex. But coming back to Brazil as a twenty-something, it turns out I’d forgotten how funny it also is.
Director Terry Gilliam was the token American and cartoon-provider for Monty Python and Brazil is often irreverent and surrealist in a way reminiscent of Python’s stuff. The digressions from the plot that fill out the world feel like small sketches and are symptomatic of Brazil‘s overwhelming style. Gilliam has described his directorial style as messy, and he packs the film with anything that’ll fit. It’s overpacked, in every sense. Take the song that lends the film its name, for example, surfaces constantly throughout, in different versions, whistled, played by a restaurant’s string quartet. Its a fascinating, and suitably patchwork, approach to a soundtrack. It’s packed with ideas like this. With distinctive visuals, with themes, characters, running jokes, fantasy sequences, satire, weirdness…
Frankly, it’s a baggy film. It’s over two hours, and feels every minute. The central plot stops and starts. But even here, form fits function. It’s a film about order versus chaos, and picks its side accordingly. As the state crumbles, the film itself explodes into countless fragments. So it’s hard to say Brazil is a film about any single thing. But it’s not really about the future, no. It’s a messily-drawn cartoon of a film, and everything it uses to create the supposed future is drawn from the fabric of the present, and the present. Brazil is no attempt at predicting what tomorrow will be like. It’s far too silly to try something as pointless as that.