Brazil, it’s only a state of mind.
The dark satire Brazil presents one of the most complete worlds in science-fiction, focusing on a totalitarian ruled city in which one man dreams of eventually escaping. Terry Gilliam creates a realistic and frightening reflection of things to come on this week’s Sci-Fi Saturdays.
The trailer for the film appears as possibly an officious black comedy. It plainly states it’s about “flights of fantasy and the nightmare of reality,” but what exactly does that mean? It makes sure to let audiences know that it’s directed by Terry Gilliam, director of Time Bandits, which provides some context in itself. Jonathan Pryce appears to be avoiding explosions and teaming up with Robert De Niro in a weird futuristic environment, but not much else can be gleaned. Whatever it is, it’s going to be weird!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
At 8:49pm, a few days before Christmas, “somewhere in the 20th Century,” a fly gets stuck in an teletype printer at the Ministry of Information changing the name Archibald Tuttle into Archibald Buttle on a warrant. The wrong man is arrested and killed which marks the beginning of a headache for MOI bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). Sam happily works at the Department of Records as a cog in the dystopian, polluted, and totalitarian world until his mother, Ida Lowry (Katherine Helmond), uses her social influence to get him a job with Information Retrieval–a much more prestigious position.
Sam is troubled by his youth-obsessed, plastic surgery loving mother mucking up his perfectly acceptable life. While dining with her and her friend Mrs. Terrain (Barbara Hicks), a terrorist bomb detonates within the restaurant. Except for those injured, everyone else moves on like nothing has happened. At the office, Sam’s boss Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) is worried that Sam will leave, making Kurtzmann’s work-life more difficult. Sam assures him that he has no aspiration of leaving. However when he delivers a re-routed cheque to Buttle’s widow, Sam see’s the woman of his dreams, literally, and his plans change.
Sam’s dreams are vivid fantasies that he is a flying angel, decked out in silver armor attempting to rescue a beautiful blonde damsel in distress from a giant, technocratic samurai. From this point on, Sam is willing to do what he must in order to find out who this woman is. He discovers her name is Jill but can’t find any more information on her using the computers at the Department of Records, so he begrudgingly accepts the promotion that his mother got for him. One evening the ductwork in his apartment, which oozes and breathes just behind the walls, malfunctions. A man dressed all in black, and claiming to be Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) arrives to fix it, circumventing the official policy for ductwork set by Central Services.
Within the officious and labyrinthine offices of Information Retrieval, Sam discovers his friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin)–who works as a torturer within the MOI, has information that can help him find Jill. Sam rescues Jill from the MOI lobby just as she is about to be discovered. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with this crazy man that confesses his love for her. They evade a government checkpoint and while hiding in a mall are caught in another terrorist bombing and detained. Sam returns home to find two repairmen from Central Services, Spoor and Dowser (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor) have seized his flat for illegal repairs. Tuttle shows up again and helps Sam enact revenge on the two by swapping the air intake hoses for their hazmat suits with the sewer line.
Sam rescues Jill again and they hide out at Ida’s house. Jill has come to love Sam as well and the two make love, after Sam makes a quick trip to his office to erase Jill from the computer system. The next morning they are arrested as masked SWAT teams storm the house, taking the two into custody. As Sam is processed, he is told about the payment plans he can choose from to pay for his arrest and trial. He is then taken into a large cylindrical chamber, where he is charged with treason and strapped into a chair. Being told that Jill was killed resisting arrest, a man in a white lab coat and grotesque baby-faced mask enters.
Sam recognizes that it is Jack, come to extract the information from him. Before Jack can begin the process, he is shot in the head by Tuttle who, along with half a dozen others, rappel into the chamber and rescue Sam. During the escape, Tuttle is attacked by wind-blown paper and disappears leaving Sam on his own. Sam wanders into a funeral for Mrs. Terrain, where his mother, looking younger than ever (and surprisingly like Jill) ignores his pleas for help. He falls into the casket and emerges on the street from his dream, evading hordes of zombie-like bureaucrats. Jumping through a doorway, Sam then finds himself in the cab of Jill’s truck and they drive into the idyllic countryside of Sam’s dream. But it rapidly becomes evident that Sam is still strapped into the chair at the MOI, and has been driven insane as Jack, very much alive, leaves the room.
“Mistake? We don’t make mistakes.” – Department of Works employee
History in the Making
Brazil is the third non-Monty Python film directed by Terry Gilliam, and arguably one of his best known films. It follows the last film collectively done by the Python’s, The Meaning of Life in 1983 and Gilliam’s previous two films, the eccentric Time Bandits (1981), and the obscure Jabberwocky (1977). It is also the film of Gilliam’s that helped solidify his style, outside of animation that is. Gilliam was the only non-Brit in the troupe of comedians known collectively as Monty Python, and also one of the most visual. Besides small participation in the sketches performed by the group, his major contribution to the original series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was it’s short and whimsical animated shorts, a process he continued through all four of the Python’s feature films. His strong visual ideas continued in Time Bandits, showcasing a less than perfect contemporary world that was as fantastical as it was dirty and depressing. Brazil then appears to be peak-Gilliam, as his aesthetic design, his camera angles, and story themes all come together to produce a film greater than the sum of its parts.
The film has been called many things, from Orwellian to Kafkaesque. It’s also dystopian, totalitarian, and bureaucratic. But there are some things it is not. It is not a story of the future. Gilliam has stated in several interviews that even though the world of the film may have some futuristic advancements and not necessarily reflect the contemporary 1985 when it was released, it is about “the way we live now.” And while Brazil has been most strongly compared to George Orwell’s novel “1984,” it is not a film about fascism as such. Traditional fascism holds up a more central figure of authority and espouses a more regimented society and state. Brazil, while having some clear antagonists (as well as more obtuse ones), never has a clear state mandated dictator. Mr. Helpmann, as leader of the Ministry of Information, provides that sort of genial Big Brother-like visage, but the world is not regimented by a strict order nor his say-so. He is just one more cog in the overall machine. Part of the film’s belief is that even in this centralized bureaucracy there is no single individual pulling the strings. It’s hundreds of thousands of small fiefdoms of individuals clawing about for their own power and autonomy, which leads to the general sentiment and malaise that the film presents. This point is subtly enforced by the Ministry of Information stamp, MOI–the French word for “me,” on office equipment and tea cups. The world is dreary and drab because no one is in control and everyone is only looking out for themselves, instead of cultivating anything for the society. And that’s what makes the film most chilling and depressing. Brazil’s main villain is actually the bureaucracy itself. And the real fascism is the fascism of bureaucracy.
The bureaucracy of Brazil with its circular logic and forms (the arrest receipt isn’t stamped by Information Adjustment, and in order to get the proper form Jill is supposed to return to IA to get the stamp), it’s minutiae of institutional logic (as when Sam shows Mr. Kurtzmann how to properly sign and manage the check to Buttle’s widow to avoid punishment), and the maze-like design of its institutions (both in the physical realm and in the business realm) becomes the real oppressor. The humans of this world have designed a maze that not even they can escape. The dictator is now the system itself, and it holds the regimented authority of paperwork over everyone’s head. A man is wrongly killed after an incorrect arrest. If the correct paperwork was submitted, then it’s not wrong. Was a 27B-stroke-6 submitted before working on the ducts? It’s a convoluted system that Gilliam dreamed up, but it’s not much different from the world we live in now. Or even the one that existed 35 years ago.
Gilliam also used the film to show how individuals used to such labyrinthine systems can have the most absurd belief structures as well. Sam’s friend Jack Lint, who is a larger cog in the machine of Information Retrieval–as it is euphemized, believes the lie of simplicity. In his world view everything is connected, he says. “All along the line. Cause and effect, that’s the beauty of it. Our job is to trace the connections and then reveal them. This whole Buttle-Tuttle confusion was obviously planned from the inside.” To Jack, the conspiracy angle is much easier to consume instead of the actual chaos evident in the world. It’s easier to think that there is someone in control, making incredibly complicated and convoluted decisions instead of seeing the insanity of real life where a random fly smudging a piece of paperwork sets off a chain-reaction of events. Brazil presents these ideas with a wry, satirical wit, clearly winking at the audience at the absurdity of this crazy world that people live in.
Brazil might raise the question, “is this film really science-fiction.” I’ll go back to what I said in the Sci-Fi Saturdays article for Fahrenheit 451 in regard to what a sci-fi film is. “Most commonly the films take place in or about space, and sometimes in the future. But they can also deal with alternate realities, possible futures or re-imagined pasts.” Brazil falls squarely into this latter category as an alternate reality. It’s also in the realm of other dystopian sci-fi films including THX 1138, Escape from New York, and Blade Runner providing some of the same thematic issues while taking place in a more contemporary plane of existence. Of course the story that draws the most comparisons is of course George Orwell’s 1984 which was turned into a movie in both 1956 and the previous year, 1984. As most people are aware, Orwell’s story took place in a future (some 35 years after his story was published), in which the world had become a totalitarian state, plagued by omnipresent surveillance and propaganda. Brazil incorporates many of these elements including the use of the Ministry of Information, the prevalent signage reminding citizens that “suspicion breeds confidence,” or “don’t suspect a friend report him,” and the omnipresent foreboding and stress that the society weighs upon the characters.
The look of the film draws heavily from the noir style of filmmaking made popular in the 1940s and 50s. The costume design harkens to that 1940s aesthetic with the fedora hats and grey retro suits styles. In fact, a lot of the designs and style relates heavily to the French new wave film Alphaville, which also has strong ties to 1984 and totalitarian themes, slotting Brazil firmly as a neo-noir film. Sam is the man on the run, Jill is the femme fatale, and Jack represents the forces that seek to bring them both down. Gilliam also draws heavily on elements from other films as well as real life oppression.
While much of the fiction of the film relates to fictional ideas of totalitarianism, there is one very chilling reminder of real oppression. The giant statue of a winged figure in the lobby of the Ministry of Information bears the inscription “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” as seen as the group of students wanders by for a tour. This is a direct reference to the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” which was the words inscribed at entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Gilliam’s reminder that while the film is satirical and fictional, there are still elements of reality in the ideas presented.
Gilliam also draws parallels to other fictional stories. Two stand out more than others. The first is the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (also a short story by Ambrose Bierce) which was made for the fifth season of the anthology TV series, The Twilight Zone. That story involves the hanging of a prisoner who escapes the punishment and makes his way through the countryside to find his wife. Just as he is about to fall into her arms, the man jerks backwards as the film cuts back to the hanging and him being jerked by the rope. Sam’s miraculous escape from the Ministry and his strange half dream/half realistic run from their troops follows the same beats. Sam makes it into the country with Jill, finally getting the girl of his dream when Jack and Mr. Helpmann steps into the frame indicating that Sam “has got away from us.” He escaped, but instead of freedom, it’s by madness. The film also makes allusions to a favorite story of Gillaim’s Don Quixote. Sam’s dreams have him fighting a giant samurai warrior whose suit is made up of lots of microchips and other pieces of technology. In these scenes, Sam, dressed in armor of his own, is a dwarf compared to the giant Samurai giving the dynamic of Don Quixote tilting at the giant windmills. Additionally when Sam does defeat the giant warrior and removes its mask, he finds his own visage inside, much as Luke Skywalker did in The Empire Strikes Back. The film also suggests that Sam is part of the problem and his own worst enemy.
Thematically Brazil is a dense film that speaks wholly to the questions of who are we, and why are we here. Primarily the elements of Sam’s dreams showcase the resilience of the human spirit. Within the oppressive, dark and dirty world of Brazil, Sam is able to escape even if only in his mind, for it is within the mind that the oppressed are truly free. Additionally Sam’s dreams feature him flying, another common allusion to freedom. In the end Sam does become free from the world, but it is only in his dream rather than in reality. His madness has allowed him to leave the world of the film and live out his fantasy, but at too great a cost.
The film also focuses on the use of euphemisms to offset the cruel nature of this reality. The department of Information Retrieval is the primary focus of these phrases. The department is responsible for retrieving information from citizens that are brought into it for committing crimes. The nature of this retrieval is shown as taking the guise of torture, using various metal instruments to extract the necessary “truths.” Many citizens do not survive the process. And as such, Jack Lint refers to them as his “customers,” lest his ethics kick in and allow him to feel remorse for the deaths he causes. In a world where the flow of information is being controlled, creating euphemistic phrases or changing the meaning of phrases for obfuscation is the best way to exert control and deny the reality of the situation.
The oppression of paperwork is another strong element in the film, inspiring fear in characters like Dowser (who doesn’t have the necessary 27B-stroke-6 form to repair the ducts) to Mr. Kurtzmann’s agitation that his career will be blackmarked for failing to properly return a cheque to Buttle’s widow. Gilliam takes this to the extreme in the final segment (which is playing out in Sam’s head) as Harry Tuttle is literally brought down by paperwork. As he helps Sam escape the Ministry facility a wind storm starts with pieces of paper debris clinging to the terrorist. More and more paper begins to stick to him, and when Sam comes over to help him out, the man is nowhere to be found under the mound of forms and flyers. He has literally been erased by the bureaucratic process.
The Science in The Fiction
Within the technological world of the computer, deletion equals death. This is the process which Sam uses to attempt to save Jill from being found by the Ministry. He removes her from the computer and marks her as killed. Since the bureaucracy relies on the answers and results from their system more than the realities of their own eyes around them, this is the strongest tool to use against the oppression. Unfortunately for Sam, it didn’t seem to work as when Jill was discovered with him, she was killed while trying to escape, possibly another euphemistic phrase.
Additionally the film makes much use of the importance of ducts and hoses. Some buildings have exposed ductwork, while people like Sam have their ducting hidden behind the walls of their flat. This important piece of equipment that regulates temperature and possibly more, is depicted as a living and breathing element behind the scenes, much like the organs within the human body that keep it regulated. This low-end piece of technology seems to have as much problem as the higher-tech computers within the world.
The Final Frontier
Brazil has been credited with the design aesthetic for many films to come including 1989s Batman, Delicatessen, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Dark City. The use of a dark palette for the cinematography and a retro-futuristic production design created quite an impact on future films. It also set up the design and cinematic complexity for Gilliam’s future films such as 12 Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
This complex film has much more elements to unpack than can be summarized in this brief article. It is a showcase of director Terry Gilliam’s imagination as well as his tenacity in sticking with the film to complete this film in the face of studio interference and the lack of confidence by higher ups. Gilliam’s final product (if that’s the version you happen to see) stands as an interesting and timeless work that speaks to the events now in the early 21st Century as well, or perhaps better, than it did in 1985 when it was released.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.