Brazil is Terry Gilliam's visually-striking sci-fi classic about a man, Sam Lowry, who rebels against the overbearing bureaucracy for which he works to save the love of his life--and himself--from being black-bagged by the Ministry of Information and forced to be overcharged for his interrogation. The film is chock full of beautiful set design, nice themes and excitement. That being said, the film has its flaws.
The most persistent flaw in the film would be the main character. Sam Lowry is a pitiful, pathetic man, his life ruled by his rich, domineering mother and shitty job. When his mother pulls some strings and gets him a promotion, he (at first) turns it down; even when given the chance to be somebody, he chooses to remain nobody. When he begins to rebel against the system, he's doing so out of some misplaced love for a woman he barely knows from his dreams (and even her character doesn't have a whole lot of meat on her bones). He doesn't initiate the rebellion; it's thrust upon him. And even then, he's not really changed by it. He still remains quite wimpish and soft, never truly growing a spine or becoming the hero the film needs. He just goes along with the rebellion that the terrorists and Harry Tuttle have already set into motion. He's a passenger on the train, and not a conductor.
Sam Lowry ends up as another one of those characters who are so sheepish and unimportant to their world that you can't really feel any connection, let alone sympathy, for him. Others include Wikus Van De Merwe from District 9, Scott Pilgrim, and Alvy from Annie Hall. These films are very good visually and very clever, but if the only real sentiment that can be felt for the protagonist is "When is this douchebag gonna grow some balls and take control of his life?" then the film suffers. The stellar technical qualities of the film are therefore brought down, as they are used in narrative film making to enhance the storyline and the emotions felt for the characters, and they can't enhance emotions that aren't there in the first place.
For this type of character to actually be worth caring about, he or she has to show a willingness to take control of a situation. Lionel Cosgrove from Dead Alive is an example. A silly film, yes, but when Lionel kicks open the front door holding the lawnmower and declares "Party's Over!" he has grown from an indecisive dork into someone with cojones. He has become a man. But the other characters I listed, who don't experience this transformation, remain one-dimensional wimps not worthy of my sympathy.
Another problem I had with the film was its goof-ball comedy bits. This was Gilliam's first film after his Monty Python days, and a lot of that humor lingers over into Brazil. This is shown with the casting of Gilliam's M.P. writing partner Michael Palin. Sam's new manager at Information Retrieval and the bumbling repairmen who ruin Sam's apartment are perfect examples of the quirky, oddball kind of humor that pops up in the film here and there. These scenes don't really serve as comic relief, as the film isn't paced fast enough to require relief. And there isn't enough humor to really place the film in the realm of a satire. Instead these scenes hinder the film, making it feel too silly and not poignant enough at times. Because of the comedy, the film ends up lacking strength and a solid raison d'etre that its sci-fi peers, like Blade Runner and The Terminator, truly possess.
The film, however, does have its redeeming qualities that make the film worth watching at least once. Lowry's dream sequences are beautifully-photographed sublime metaphors, and the art direction, both in and out of the dream world, are beautiful and evocative. I especially like the nod to 30s noir, with the employees' suits and the playing of Casablanca on the malfunctioning computers. The commentary on bureaucracy is also nice, even though it's been said before. The ending torture sequence (and just to be clear this is a review of the Gilliam-approved Criterion director's cut; not the heavily-reworked "love conquers all" version) is wonderfully done, with plenty of style and bravery, and is incredibly evocative.
But as I alluded to earlier, if there isn't an emotional connection made with the protagonist of the film, the stunning visuals and exciting climax are more or less for naught. If I don't care what happens to him, I won't feel excited when he's running from the Ministry, down when he's tortured, et cetera. I can admire the photography for its superficial beauty, but I can't really feel the emotions the photography are meant to enhance because I don't care about the main character. Brazil is a film with truckloads of potential to be great that is squandered on a pencil-pushing dork.