When Kafka wrote The Trial, he set it out of any specific point in history, making it contemporary to all time. Whereas in 1948, when George Orwell wrote 1984, it had a necessarily futuristic element to it. When Terry Gilliam fused both these stories into his intellectually loaded and visually remarkable masterpiece, Brazil, one of the many ingenious aspects lay in his recognising that he was making both a contemporary film and a film out-of-time. He therefore created his own ‘meta-reality’.
In Brazil, a generic Western society has become a bureaucratic web. The simplest exchange requires mountains of paperwork and strict adherence to procedures has replaced anyone’s ability to critically think about the banality and brutality around them. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is an anonymous functionary in a bland government ministry, ‘Information Management’. Much to the consternation of his upper class mother, Sam has repeatedly turned down promotions to the more prestigious ministry of ‘Information Retrieval’. Sam prefers to live happily and quietly as a cog in the giant machine. When Sam sleeps, however, he flies through beautiful blue skies toward the woman of his dreams.
One day a bug (literally) in the system creates a whirlwind of mistakes.A request has been made for the detention of Archibald ‘Harry’ Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a vigilante freedom fighter / airconditioner repairman who doesn’t play by Central Services’ (the government’s physical plant) rules. Unfortunately a bug falls into a typewriter while the request is processed, mistakenly creating a report for ‘Buttle’,a low-key,poor family man. The error results in the innocent man’s arrest and eventual death.
Sam attempts to ‘correct’ this ‘oversight’ by the ministry by delivering an ‘arrest refund cheque’ to Buttle’s widow. There, he meets Jill Layton (Kim Greist), who is (again, literally) the girl of his dreams. Motivated by concern for her neighbour, Jill has been enquiring about Buttle’s disappearance. Upon recognising Jill from his dreams, Sam eagerly accepts the promotion he has been turning down in order to more authoritatively investigate the Buttle case, and thereby make himself more attractive to Jill.
The line between his dreams and reality blur ever further as he goes deeper and deeper into the government machine to find out who Jill is. Meanwhile, his air-conditioner breaks and his call to Central Services is intercepted by none other than Tuttle. When Central Services finally does respond, the two repairmen, Spoor and Charlie (Bob Hoskins and Nigel Planer) are suspicious, and they vengefully take over Lowry’s apartment for ‘repair reasons’.
Eventually, Sam does win Jill’s heart. Fearing Jill will be wanted for sedition because of her enquiries, he endeavours to erase her identity from the central computer system.
Terry Gilliam seems to have spared no expense in making sure every visual element of the world adds up to a cohesive whole. It is a world rendered realistically enough to feel feasible, and yet surrealistically enough to leave an unforgettable impression on you. Gilliam’s stroke of genius was to meld these elements so thoroughly with a fantasy world that it’s hard to discern where one ends and the other starts.
By setting Brazil ‘somewhere in the twentieth century’, he employs an odd use of retro-design, taking elements from the past 80 years and fusing them into one world. The upper-class social circle has a 1920s feel to it. This makes it seem both cloistered from the squalor and menace of its surrounding world, and imbues its excesses with the imminent doom of that era.
The film also fits many genres: comedy, drama, sci-fi, social critique, etc. You can try to explain the plot to people in a one-line summary: a man looks for his dream woman and is crushed by the state. This is too simple for a film so rich in subplots and thematic allusions, but this through-line allows something upon which all the other aspects can be hung without losing focus. Thus many sub-textual images can flourish: in one scene, a man is buying ‘clean air’ from a vending machine along the street; the sides of the highways are walls of billboards, which hide the barren environment beyond; a group of people carry a banner that announces ‘Consumers for Christ’ in a store decorated for the holidays as a small child tells Santa she wants a credit card for Christmas.
Brazil is less about the overt totalitarianism of 1984, and more about submission to a slower, more polite death. There are no choices in this society. One can neither fail nor succeed. Sam seems as rebellious as one is able to be, by continuing to turn down promotions. The promotion itself is no reflection on Sam’s abilities (which are displayed): instead his destiny is determined by nepotism. In lieu of any other effective rebellion, Sam rebels against success.
This is definitely a big screen film, meant to be viewed from beginning to end without interruption. The sheer momentum of the social critique and humour end up hitting you like a train by the film’s end, an experience which simply can’t be replicated when viewed with the visual limitations and concentration interferences of watching TV at home. One needs to focus on the mood of oppressive reality-unreality and Sam’s reaction to it. This mood holds up throughout the film and is the film’s greatest gift.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writer(s): Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard
Runtime(s): 131 minutes, 142 minutes (USA, director’s cut)
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.