There’s a number of films that are considered ‘untraditional’ Christmas films; Die Hard (1988), Lethal Weapon (1987), even Batman Returns (1992) have provided alternatives to more familiar holiday offerings. But for me, one film that should be added to the list is Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil. Drawing heavily from Orwell, Kafka and Monty Python, Gilliam created a work of prescient genius about an authoritarian surveillance state manufacturing a terrorist threat to help control the population as Jonathan Pryce’s character, Sam Lowry, descends into a Kafkaesque hell.
The film sadly suffered heavy cuts and editing in its American release in order to give it a happy ending, but the entire point of Brazil is to witness an ordinary man changed by imagination into someone different from the crowd, only to be crushed by the state. Thankfully, here in the UK the film was untouched and appreciated from the off as a remarkable work, which over 30 years later it remains.
Set in a future influenced by the Britain of the past, Sam Lowry is a lowly bureaucrat working in a mundane job daydreaming of soaring through the clouds and rescuing a girl who lives there. Never taking promotion much to the joy of his boss Kurtzman (Ian Holm) who knows he could easily go far in the state in this dystopian world. It isn’t until an administrative error and a chance meeting with the real life girl in the clouds that Lowry is drawn into a very personal hell.
Brazil is a nightmare, but setting it at Christmas while the films itself is dripping with cynicism is a wonderful stroke, as Christmas is supposed to be a time for friends, family and loved ones to gather and celebrate. Yet Sam has no real friends apart from Michael Palin’s gloriously sadistic and successful analogue to Pryce’s complacent failure, and as for his mother, she’s more interested in plastic surgery and marrying off Sam than actually making him happy. All throughout the film Sam only wants to be happy but the state refuses to let him get what he wants, and ultimately the state gives him happiness only by breaking his mind.
As dystopian science fiction films go, Brazil is at the very top. The retro look of this alternative world is wonderful and as one would expect from a Python, there’s a fair amount of humour as well as a cameo from Robert De Niro when such a thing meant something. Ultimately though there’s a message here about how states can not just oppress their people, but crush their imaginations which makes Brazil a bleak, uncompromising film on paper but Gilliam lures you in and delivers a crushing blow by the end.
If you want an alternative Christmas film which is funny, still relevant and has a bite, then put down the turkey, avoid the Boxing Day sales and check out a true classic.