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

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by Matt Brennan
December 18, 2012 4:20 PM
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'Brazil'
'Brazil'

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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