I’m recommending Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” for election week because it’s a political satire that remains oddly prescient, but it’s also a surreal sci-fi noir presenting a dystopian future way bleaker than our own. It’s also (technically) a Christmas film, and it is universally acknowledged that starting the day after Halloween, the holiday season ramps up in full force, panting and champing at the bit, eager to be released upon unsuspecting American consumers.
Loosely based on George Orwell’s “1984,” “Brazil” depicts life in an unnamed city (presumably in England, as everyone has a British accent and Gilliam is a Brit himself, a member of the Monty Python troupe) ruled over by a bureaucratic, totalitarian government. Unlike “1984,” the tone here is whimsical and darkly comedic. The main character is Sam Lowry, a man with a meaningless government job, a tiny apartment and vivid daydreams in which he is flying high above it all as a silvery winged superhero. Sam also has romantic visions about a mysterious woman whom he eventually meets in person; but in real life, Jill is a rebel terrorist, intent on defying the system, and drags poor Sam into a heap of trouble.
In this world, everyone is dependent on machines (though they never work properly) and trapped behind endless layers of red tape. The silliest and most relatable scenes depict characters being sent back and forth fruitlessly between officials, trying to get their needs met. One official needs a signature from another department; that department needs a form from the previous official; and nothing is ever resolved. There is the illusion of efficiency – as when an innocent man is arrested in front of his family, his wife is graciously handed a receipt for his confiscation. But it turns out the man was wrongly charged, and no one bothered to check before brutalizing him.
The plot is thin, as the film relies most meaningfully on visual gags and elaborately dreamy set design. The comic aesthetics include heating ducts inexplicably sprouting from the walls of every office and home; devices on the street from which citizens can inhale “fresh air”; signs suggesting “Don’t support a friend – report them”; and Sam’s office, where he must share a desk with someone on the other side of a wall, desperately pulling it back to his side like a couple fighting over a blanket.
Despite the story’s absurdist atmosphere, there are moments brimming with somber terror. The most memorable involves a person being tortured by a fellow in a baby-face mask; but I won’t give away any more surprises. Watch this with a mellow indica, or you run the risk of ending up paranoid, sweating in your bed and peering out your windows. After all, our government isn’t TOO far off from the power structure of this oppressive fantasy, and the NSA is probably watching you right now.