‘Brazil’ takes existentialism to satirical level

It’s somewhat rare that a movie with an existential ethos is gut-laugh funny, but director Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” pulls it off.

The story revolves around Sam Lowrey, played by Jonathon Pryce (“Evita,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”), a good-hearted pencil pusher and employee of Central Services, a hopelessly inefficient multi-departmental government agency. The bureaucratic nightmare aspect of the film will resonate with anyone who’s ever spent three-and-a-half hours wading through lines and paperwork at the University Center.

There is much about the world Sam inhabits that rings true of the United States in the early 21st century. Giant billboard advertisements line the roads, hiding the wasteland of pollution that lies behind. Televisions permeate every room of people’s houses. Messages (although delivered via pneumatic tubes, rather than e-mail) bounce back as soon as they’re sent.

Stuck as he is in a world of materialism and alienation, Sam indulges in mythic dreams. He soon falls in love with Jill Layton, played by Kim Greist, (“Throw Mama From the Train,” “Zoe”) an independent and scrappy young woman who becomes suspect for taking on the bureaucracy in hopes of getting an innocent neighbor out of jail.

One of the most interesting characters in the film is Harry Tuttle, played by Robert DeNiro. Tuttle is a rogue engineer, who provides the same services as Central Services, but without all the paperwork. This also makes him public enemy No. 1.

Other noteworthy performances include Michael Palin (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) as Sam’s friend Jack Lint, and Ian Holm (“Garden State”) as Sam’s boss, Mr. Kurtzman.

For fans of Gilliam’s work, this 1985 release bears his unmistakable stamp. “Brazil” combines the gritty surrealism evident in “Twelve Monkeys” with the playful tongue-in-cheek humor of “The Fisher King.”

- Advertisement -

It’s obvious though, that “Brazil” is among Gilliam’s earlier works, as some transitions are a little disjointed, particularly the initial introductions of the “Clash of the Titans”-esque dream sequences, which take a while to get used to.

Stylistically, the film is typical of Gilliam’s embrace-the-bizarre creative philosophy. Whereas the surroundings and costumes of the working class seem firmly lodged in the post-Vietnam era, art deco permeates the world of the upper crust. But the two styles come together in a surreal amalgam that reinforces the movie’s themes.

Think 1980s industrial-pop meets the Franz Kafka work of your choice, on acid.

Although some aspects of the film design are unquestionably dated, the issues “Brazil” deals with have only increased in their relevancy over the last 20 years. Unbridled consumerism, terrorism, bureaucratic fascism and women with a self-destructive obsession with youthfulness make for guilty laughs.

But the film’s seemingly heavy subject-matter does not weigh it down in the way you might expect. Although a few scenes get bogged down, overall it is engaging and enjoyable.

The theme of the film is humanity’s ability to maintain imagination and humor even in the most mundane of atmospheres.

For Gilliam fans or people with an interest in sci-fi, satire, or existentialism, “Brazil” is a must-rent.