Brazil may be the greatest movie ever made about bureaucratic inefficiency. That may sound like a backhanded compliment—especially given that we’re talking about a fantasy epic—but I mean it as an expression of pure awe, if only due to the degree of difficulty involved. Just as it’s a Herculean task to accurately depict boredom in a way that won’t bore an audience into a coma (although many directors on the festival circuit nowadays seem to relish that particular challenge), one always has to be concerned that doing justice to a pervasive modern irritation will only serve to inflame those nerve ends still further. (Even the Circumlocution Office bit in Dickens’ Little Dorrit gets a tad exhausting.) With Brazil, Terry Gilliam found precisely the right level of comically threatening absurdism to make it work, largely by envisioning a dystopian future that suspiciously resembles a piteously outmoded past.
Actually, the hardest part of this week’s column was just choosing the scene, as there are so many stunners: Simon Jones officiously reciting jargonese to an innocent family man trussed up in some disturbing amalgam of a straitjacket and a burlap sack, surrounded by stormtroopers in gas masks; the establishing shot of the Department Of Records, with its apparently endless rows and aisles of frantically scurrying workers and imposing exposed ducts; hero Jonathan Pryce struggling to retain possession of the half of the desk he shares with the office next door. In the end, though, I couldn’t resist the classic episode in which Pryce’s air conditioning malfunctions, leading to anxious encounters with a rogue heating engineer played by Robert De Niro, and with two Central Services functionaries who clearly take undue pleasure in the less-savory aspects of their profession. Pryce has just placed a desperate call to Central Services as the clip begins:
Gilliam’s attention to detail throughout this scene (and the whole film, really) boggles the mind. It’s a good joke, for example, that Pryce’s solution to his overheated apartment involves sleeping with his head inside the refrigerator—but it’s an even better joke that the fridge has its own ridiculously conspicuous designation: R5406/J. Look around the apartment set, and you’ll see that practically every surface is similarly encoded: There’s a serial number on the garbage can (which I never saw until I looked for it just now; it’s barely even in focus), numerals and warnings (“DO NOT TOUCH”) on various wall panels, etc. Unfortunately, you don’t get a good view of the telephone in this scene, because it immediately falls into darkness on the floor, but if you can freeze the right frame, you’ll see that its array of color-coded jacks—there are 15, plus additional buttons at the top—would entail overkill for a switchboard operator. And yet none of this clonks you over the head like, say, the gadgets in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. It’s just part of the fabric of the world Gilliam has created, unobtrusively omnipresent.
As the symbolic opposition to all this bureaucracy, De Niro, who was pretty much exclusively a leading man in the mid-’80s, turns in one of the most indelible cameo performances of all time. (He reportedly wanted to play Jack Lint, the role Gilliam wrote for and promised to Michael Palin, but he settled for Harry Tuttle, for whom he’s clearly far better suited.) Gilliam gives the character a fantastic introduction, panning subtly from Pryce on the phone to a view of De Niro’s feet inching methodically into the apartment, even as we hear his tinny voice pointlessly repeating “Hello.” And even here, with only the lower half of his body in view, you can see the thrilling precision and intensity that, sadly, De Niro stopped bothering with many years ago. Look at the way he crouches down just a hair further, getting into position, just before he tells Pryce to put the phone down and raise his hands—it’s such a masterly little beat, conveying character detail entirely through the bend of his knees. (That said, I think he slightly overdoes the gruff, hearty heh-heh-hehs later in the scene.)
The very idea of a renegade heating engineer who intercepts the power company’s service calls and shows up to perform illegal repairs is not merely absurd, but subtly depressing, in that it suggests that in this society, even the most rebellious souls are locked into the system to some degree. (Note, by the way, that Pryce’s recurring fantasy in which he’s a winged warrior is reflected in a poster visible on one of his walls.) Like many teen males, I went through a rabid Monty Python phase around high school, then kind of moved on; after seeing Brazil, I concluded that Gilliam had turned out to be the troupe’s true visionary. Recently, though, I’ve been revisiting the original Flying Circus episodes for the first time in decades, and watching this scene again, I became acutely aware of how much it resembles the classic Python sketch, in basic conception if not exacting execution. There’s a direct line from, say, the coal miners who come to blows about what year the Treaty Of Utrecht was signed to this film’s notion of a battle for the common man’s soul being fought between rival utility repairmen.
Speaking of which, I don’t know that I’ve ever loved Bob Hoskins more than I do in this movie. From the moment Pryce opens the door, he looks as if he’s anticipating the most glorious experience of his entire life to date, which would clearly involve the destruction of someone’s fragile psyche via delay, harassment, and general ineptitude. The fact that his partner merely echoes every word he says implies that Central Service routinely sends two men to perform the work of one. Even the bills of their company caps jutting halfway across the room smack of needless overkill. These two guys are only onscreen for about a minute and a half (plus a brief reappearance later; they get a spectacularly gross imaginary comeuppance), but their gleeful malice dominates the film, representing an entire cadre of civil servants whose primary goal is to frustrate and badger lonely dreamers like Pryce. And the dialogue, for all its emphasis on the dreaded 27B/6 form, doesn’t really accomplish this—it’s all in Hoskins’ bright demon eyes and sadistic snarl, accompanied by that cheery echo. It’s filmmaking at its most economical, which isn’t a trait for which Terry Gilliam has often been celebrated.