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Now and Then: ‘Brazil,’ Terry Gilliam’s Dystopia — And Ours, Too

Now and Then: 'Brazil,' Terry Gilliam's Dystopia — And Ours, Too

To my discredit, I had never seen “Brazil.” It sat atop my pile of screeners for a few weeks, its length and reputation forbidding. Like all dystopian fictions, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 epic is a prophecy of sorts, guesswork for a grim future. And it turned out he was right.

When I sat down to watch it Thursday night, cheap memo pad in hand, it seemed a gonzo, steampunk satire, a vision of Western bureaucracies and men in gray flannel suits indebted to Orwell’s “1984,” Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” and I suppose it is, or was. But it would be disingenuous, now, to read it only as such, to ignore its bleaker implications in the face of the world beyond the frame. I suspect the comic, capering elements of “Brazil” once made sense on their own terms — perhaps because Gilliam, with co-writers Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard, had no way of knowing just how eerily accurate their more shadowy predictions would be.

The film opens on an upbeat note, the bright theme (“Aquarela do Brasil”) shimmering through the clouds, descending Earthward. A store window’s televisions screens blare out a good-natured advertisement for more screens, and then a bomb goes off, shattering the glass in a thousand splinters, mere memories of an image. An anti-government bombing campaign, we quickly learn, has raged for 13 years.

The question of violence, playing out not only at the movies but on all of the other screens that make up our 21st-century existence, is once again rumbling beneath our collective grief. The New Yorker’s David Denby, for one, asked it after this summer’s shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and reminded his readers that the debate reaches back to the days of Penn and Peckinpah, if not before. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, in an affecting repudiation of his former relationship with the National Rifle Association, expressed disgust at first-person shooter video games and the movies’ brutal bloodshed. We are faced once again, as we have been so many times this year already, with the dense thicket of influences on a horrific pattern in American life.   

This is, for film critics especially, a sticky issue. Most of us would be hard-pressed not to name a gangster movie or a Western among our favorite films — genres whose histories of violence are unmistakable — or find ourselves caught up in the propulsive aspects of some thriller, action-adventure, or police procedural. Whether violence in movies can be said to cause real-life terrors is not a question I feel qualified to answer. I’m not a scientist, but a critic. That’s why, shaken by Friday’s events, I felt compelled to return to “Brazil.” It’s not just Gilliam’s dystopia, but ours, too.

Against the mind-numbing screens that permeate it, flashing and sparking from every bedroom, bathroom, and office — a fully automated life, if one could call that living — “Brazil” sets a fearfully prescient depiction of a War on Terror that does more to harm the citizenry than to protect it. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a dissatisfied cog in the machinery of government, encounters security checkpoints at every entrance. Explosions erupt in cars and courtyards, restaurants and retail shops. A secretary blithely transcribes the aural record of torture — “information retrieval,” a government operative calls it. Storm troopers loaded down with massive weaponry, clad in mournful black, crash through doors and windows to capture those whose “subversive” tendencies have marked them as undesirable. “Brazil” exists on the edges of a black box site; it has that dark hole at its center.

The film’s own violence, it’s worth noting, is neither particularly gory nor particularly titillating. There is no glee in it, no pleasurable suspense. It just hangs there, an omnipresent pall — though it may be less “realistic” in the context of the film than in the knowledge of what’s come after. In a deeply unsettling moment, a bunch of kids with plastic guns play out their version of extraordinary rendition in the wet, close cracks of a block of flats, storm troopers in the making.   

Given the controversy over torture in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” and the renewed debate about guns that’s emerged from last Friday’s unspeakable tragedy, it seems unaccountable that we remain unable, or unwilling, to connect the dots, to explain what we mean when we use the term “culture of violence.” Movies, television, video games, and the Internet are surely culpable, and some content long ago pushed beyond the pale into violence for violence’s sake: its own reason, and the annihilation of it.

But Gilliam’s vision of a militarized, deformed, besieged state — once a fiction of the future, now a painful analogue of our present — suggests that “culture” is made from more than what we see on our screens. Rather, it rises to the upper echelons of our leadership. In the Ministry of Information, where Sam works, a monumental brutalist sculpture in the lobby proclaims, “The truth shall make you free,” but the ministry’s motto, on a massive sign, reads differently. “Information: The Key to Prosperity.” Where power lies, truth may be a proverb, but the real concern is information and its “retrieval,” true or false. That’s where the money is.

It should be clear by now that there is no single reason for the national pathology that plagues us, and equally clear that just standing by aghast will do nothing to set the prophecy on another path. Indeed, at the end of “Brazil” Gilliam withdraws the possibility of hope by stilling Sam’s action, rendering his refusal to accept the terms of the game mute. The pure, clear countryside he seeks turns out to be just a fantasy, another screen before his eyes.

“Brazil” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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