Brazil: a film that seems as new now as it did 25 years ago

Brazil DVD coverIt’s not often that you sit down to watch a film first released a quarter of a century ago and feels like you are watching one that could have been released yesterday, but such was my experience with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

The nightmare future it paints seems as apposite now as it did in the mid-1980s – being one based on suffocating bureaucracy, widespread and intrusive government surveillance and a paranoid response to terrorist attacks.

The future world is not only beautifully designed, down to numerous small details, but by picking a visual style that is ‘1930s modern’ (sophisticated machinery but with a touch of the pre-electronic era with manual typewriter keyboards and compressed air driven communication systems), Gilliam ensured that the look would not date.

The targets of his caricatures have also stood the test of time, whether it’s the idea of unhelpful telephone support lines (with the calls to Central Services to fix a plumbing problem resulting in the same sort of frustrating response that – badly – automated phone systems do today) or the stifling grip of paperwork and a bureaucracy that concentrates on ensuring all the paperwork is in order (tick-box culture, anyone?).

The way bureaucrats in the film reduce a woman’s fear that her wife has died to a matter of complaint forms and receipts immediately chimes and brings to mind current events such as the way in which Haringey Council responded to its failure to protect Baby P from death by talking about how good its paperwork and procedures were.

The scenes of suspected terrorists being arrested, trussed up and bundled away likewise bring to mind pictures of Guantanamo Bay, orange jumpsuits and all. And in these post-credit crunch times the line, “If you hold out [confessing] too long it could jeopardise your credit rating” sounds all too current.

But perhaps my favourite touch is the government posters saying, “Don’t suspect a friend. Report him”. A film-maker wishing to satirise the present government couldn’t do much better.

The plot itself isn’t up to much. It is pretty standard fare for this sort of dystopian future film. In its favour is the fact that the plot is 25 years old; the intervening years and films with similar plots make Brazil’s plot seem more formulaic than it would have at the time. Even so, the plot is not the reason to watch the film – particular if you don’t like a predictable romantic interlude set in a bleak future. Instead, it is the visual richness and the overall picture of society it is satirising that make the film.

Well worth getting and watching.

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