This is a film which leaves you feeling deeply uncomfortable and dazed after watching it. It is a surrealist telling of the story of low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry and his investigation into a wrongful arrest by military police. The setting of the story is a dystopian future where a totalitarian state dominates a brutal, dysfunctional world of consumerism and industry. As well as being hugely depressing , Brazil is also hilarious- it is as much a comedy as it is dystopian sci-fi thriller. Director Terry Gilliam was a member of Monty Python & so the humour which permeates this film has a distinctly slap-stick/absurdist feel to it.
Throughout the film Sam has vivid fantasies about flying away from the darkly industrial world that he inhabits to join the woman of his dreams. These fantasies make up a large proportion of the film’s content and as Sam’s luck goes from bad to worse, his dreams and visions degenerate into horrifying nightmares. By the end, the lines between reality and Sam’s bizarre dream-world become blurred and the finale is a dizzying and disorientating spectacle.
The world is loosely based on Orwell’s 1984, but there are significant differences. As Slavoj Zizek points out: “Brazil [depicts a society] which will openly hedonistic, half-crazy, it will be like Groucho Marks in power… Orwell is for me way too simplistic, even optimistic. Orwell still believes that free love, authentic human relations and so on serve against totalitarian power. Here Orwell, I think, gets it deeply wrong; you can have a society which is sexually permissive, consumerist blah blah blah… totally different from what Orwell depicts and yet it is still totalitarian… [It is what we have in the West]; enlightened hedonism.”
I agree with this analysis; although the world that Gilliam created is completely bonkers- its underlying fabric reflects a chilling and highly plausible potential future. A world where freedom only exists within the confines of hedonistic consumerism, with a totalitarian super-structure underlying all of society.
Shaun of the Dead, 2004
I have lost count of the number of times that I have watched this film and yet the law of diminishing returns has yet to kick in. It is incredibly densely packed with jokes and many of them are extremely subtle; pretty much every time I watch it I’ll notice something new that I missed in previous viewings. The premise of two extremely average friends in suburban London suddenly finding themselves in a zombie apocalypse is used to hilarious effect by writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg.
The reaction of the two thirty something losers to the appearance of flesh-eating zombies is slow, hungover, incompetent and very funny (Shaun- “Ohh, for God’s sake! He’s got an arm off!”). Shaun’s grand idea is to escape to the confines of his favourite nightspot; the local pub. The plot focuses around this farcical attempt to reach ‘The Winchester‘, as Shaun leads Ed, his ex-girlfriend, her two best friends- a moody and pretentious couple- “Daffs is always taking me to see these listed buildings, and I’m always dragging him to the theatre”, Shaun’s mum and his step-Dad, who has been bitten by a zombie- “I’m quite alright Barbara; I ran it under a cold tap”.
It’s not ‘just’ a comedy, though, as there are some more sincere themes in the plot; for most of the film Shaun is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend- not exactly hugely original here but it does not feel contrived whatsoever, there’s also Shaun’s reluctant relationship with his step-Dad contrasted with his fondness of his Mum and then there is the hilariously awkward friendship between Shaun, Liz, David and Dianne.
The film slowly builds up towards a spectacular finale, after they finally reach The Winchester. The later scenes are a brilliant mix of comedy, action and heart-wrenching drama.
City of God (Cidade de Deus), 2002
City of God is a Brazilian film which focuses around the experiences of the residents of ‘Cidade de Deus’, an impoverished suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Although it is mostly fictional, parts of the plot are loosely based on real events It covers life there from the late 60s to the early 80s and it focuses on the violent, drug-related crime that dominated the neighbourhood from its inception.
The main character and narrator is Rocket, a poor black resident in the City of God who has aspirations of becoming a photographer. As well as following his life the tales of many other residents are told in rich detail.
There are of course a huge number of excellent crime-dramas out there but I think that City of God can justifiably be crowned the greatest (even though you have to watch it with subtitles if you can’t speak Portuguese!). The cinematography is fantastic. The gritty, dog-eat-dog world of favela drug-wars is juxtaposed brilliantly with the stunning beauty of Rio. There are plenty of gripping (and often incredibly violent) action sequences. The acting is top-notch and all the major characters are very much believable and memorable. The story is engaging, not to convoluted and never rushed. It is completely devoid of trite clichés and over-used plot-devices that can saturate Hollywood crime-movies (e.g. there’s no extended stand-off between the villain and heroic protagonist). The soundtrack is original and varied and used to great effect. Overall it is an absolute triumph of story-telling, don’t be put off by the subtitles and watch it if you haven’t already!