A bureaucrat in a future totalitarian state becomes its enemy and ultimately—its victim. [Dir: Terry Gilliam/ Jonathan Pryce, Katherine Helmond, Robert De Niro/ 131 min/ SciFi-Fantasy, Comedy/ Anti-Socialism, Government as Torturer]
Much like 1984, this film portrays a bleak totalitarian future. That future includes elements from the recent Nazi and Soviet past: authoritarian-style art, militaristic outfits, torture, and absurd bureaucracy. It also includes elements from the present American situation: sudden, violent, BATF-style entrances into people’s homes, vast databases of information on private individuals, and a strange public tolerance for it all.
Trapped in this milieu, a clerk at the Ministry of Information leads a dreary life in a dead-end job. He experiences happiness only in his dreams. Then one day his life changes completely. It seems that an innocent man was arrested and tortured to death due to a bureaucratic foul-up, and worse, the man’s family was overcharged for the torture! Yes, the state here charges for its “services.”
So the clerk tries to refund the man’s family for the overcharge. In the course of doing so, he meets, literally, the woman of his dreams. As it turns out, she’s an antistate rebel on the run. He wants to help her, of course, but in this unhappy world, that comes with a price.
This film is three parts 1984 and one part Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Orwell’s 1984 clearly inspired both the story and the atmosphere, but the tone is more black comedy than straight drama. That makes it a bit more palatable, but the downside of the satirical approach is that it’s less effective in generating sympathy for the state’s victims.
Director Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, infuses the film with the Pythonesque brand of humor—dry, British, and sometimes bizarre. Memorable music and quality special effects contribute much and there are some well-sketched minor characters. It’s not a film to everyone’s taste, but it’s nonetheless a provocative dystopian vision.