Set at 8:49pm, “somewhere in the 20th Century,” Brazil (1985) conveys nightmarish aspects of the past, present, and future. Its unnamed metropolis is dark and dystopic. When the bombs explode, the band quite literally plays on because terror is so commonplace. Denizens dress in the fashion of the 1940s, and the propaganda posters are styled in the manner of the 1930s. (see: Dessem) There is advanced technology, but it is faulty, to the point of being slapstick. A robotic arm pours coffee on toast; a plastic surgery procedure turns an old woman slowly into goo. The city is ruled by the Ministry of Information, a government composed of fumbling bureaucrats, of endlessly connecting and malfunctioning tubes, and of countless and pointless official forms and procedures. It is an often grotesque and absurd world of paranoia, surveillance and tyranny, which can only be escaped through fantasy, or through the denial of one’s own part within it.
Sam Lowry is a low-level bureaucrat within the Ministry of Information. He has no ambitions to further his career, and is generally competent, and decent. At the story’s beginning, we are made privy to his dreams of flying through a field with a beautiful woman. The dreams begin as lush and green pastoral delights, in stark contrast to the grey monotony of the cityscape. He soon becomes aware of a Ministry mistake, where confusing a Mr. Buttle for a Mr. Tuttle, its secret forces took Buttle in, and he passed away in their custody.
Attempting to refund the fee Buttle’s family paid when he was taken in, Lowry encounters Jill, their neighbor. She bears a striking resemblance to his dream woman, and turns out to be a wanted rebel, who has acted out against the authoritarian government.
Lowry continues to make discoveries about the nature of the world in which he lives. He meets the real Tuttle late one night when his air conditioner goes haywire. Tuttle is a vigilante freelance heating and cooling technician, who refuses to abide by the preposterously complicated procedures the government requires to make repairs. Tuttle, then, begins to function as a hero to Lowry, living outside of society and its rules.
“Tuttle negates the system, proving that by liberating oneself from the confines of the heavy-handed bureaucratic superstructure that inundates its subjects with paperwork and stifles creativity, one can truly achieve happiness,” Ben Wheeler writes in his criticism of the film. (102)
Lowry soon learns that those taken in by the Ministry’s secret service are mercilessly tortured. The torture is brutal, but Jack, who administers the brunt of it, sees it only as his job. He is pictured playing with his young daughter in his bloody coat after an intensely violent session.
He says of the death of Buttle in his custody, “Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the right man. The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man. I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?”
Myrtle, who transcribes what happens in the torture chamber with a cyborg-like hand attachment, does so with a smile. The screen shows her transcript: “Why… do you me these questions!… I have done nothing. Why am I here? What are you putting on my head? Ahhh, oh god.….no, don’t. Uh lease.I…stop!”
For these characters, bureaucracy is a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions, no matter how atrocious they may be, in a vivid illustration of Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil,” which she enumerated 22 years before the film’s release about those who were complicit during the Holocaust. Acting as just cogs in a larger machinery of evil, these characters fail to realize their own agency and their own part in these heinous acts. (see: Marshall)
As he attempts to save Jill from the Ministry’s hands, Lowry begins to act out against this system, aiding her in a series of escapes. Concurrently, his bizarre dreams increasingly seep into his every day existence and waking life. They, too, become dismal and foreboding. In them, he fights a giant war machine in an abandoned and dark version of the city he inhabits in order to save a caged Jill.
“As the boundaries between Sam’s internal and his external realities begin to disintegrate – starting with the appearance in consensus reality of Jill -the veil begins to lift and a new reality is experienced,” writes Wheeler. “At first Sam was able to ‘deny reality’ in Hyatt’s words, as Jack Lint is able to do throughout the film. Unlike Jack, Sam begins to see the injustice around him and, more importantly, question his own role in it.” (106)
In spite of his realizations, Sam cannot evade the system and its enforcers. Lowry is soon intercepted by the Ministry, cloaked, and brought in for interrogation. Jack tortures him to the point of delirium. His consciousness is overtaken by his waking dreams. In them, Lowry is saved by Tuttle and his allies, and soars free is his vibrant and fantastical land with Jill. Ultimately, it is only within his mind that he can escape this hellscape.
Gilliam has never claimed any concrete or direct connection between the film the country of Brazil. His inspiration for the film came while sitting on a Welsh beach, where he heard a song called “Aquarela do Brasil,” which became the leitmotif for Lowry’s fantasies. His focus was the meaning of the song—escape from monotony—not the geographical place from which it sprang. (Gray, 147)
The film developed as a broader comment on torture and terrorism in the world at the time. “Everything in there was happening at that point,” Gilliam said in an interview. “It’s just now it’s become bigger and more in your face and more intrusive, and that’s all. There was much more terrorism going on then, in the 80s than there is now, so this is the joke of it. But what is interesting is, really, there’s no past anymore. People just don’t seem to pay attention to what happened before, and there was a much more violent time. The IRA was busy bombing in London, the Baader-Meinhof gang was rampaging around Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy. In Argentina and places in South America, you had to pay for your incarceration and even your torture. So all of these things were going on and they are going on now.” (Birkenstein, et al, 12.)
It is striking, then, that the year of the film’s release was the final year of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship. Torture in Brazil was published secretly by the Archdiocese of São Paolo in 1986, but it was not until 2014 that much information regarding the state-sanctioned violence and torture committed during this period was released, following the establishment of a 2012 truth campaign. (see: Kornbluh)
The graphic descriptions included in these reports closely resembles the torture carried out throughout the film. Suspects were covered with hoods. They were taken from their families who did not know their whereabouts. And they were made to endure hours or days of physical and mental duress. Many did not return.
This story is, of course, not endemic to Brazil, or to the years preceding Gilliam’s film. It is a global actuality, still very present today. It is as inescapable as the nameless city and its systems are for Sam Lowry. By happenstance, Gilliam, in constructing a fiction to present many of the terrible truths he saw in the world, portrayed a bleak reality in the location that shared its name. Brazil’s narrative themes are pervasive, transcending time and place, telling the story of many distinct historical moments at once. It is a story that could be from anywhere, at any point in the 20th Century–or the next one.
Birkenstein, Jeff, et al, eds. The Cinema of Terry Gilliam: It’s a Mad World. Wallflower Press, 2013
Dessem, Matthew. “#51 Brazil,” The Criterion Contraption. http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/2006/03/51-brazil.html
Gilliam, Terry, Director. Brazil. Universal Pictures, 1985. Film.
Gray, Russel W. “Taking Nineteen Eighty Four Back to the Future, or There’s an Awful Lot of Orwell in Brazil (Not To Mention Python).” Utopian Studies, Vol. 2, No. ½, 1991, pp. 147-156. Jstor. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20719033 Accessed 26 October 2016.
Kornbluh, Peter. “Brazil Truth Commission Releases Report,” The National Security Archive. http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB496/
Marshall, Colin. “Hannah Arendt’s Original Articles on “the Banality of Evil” in the New Yorker Archive,” OpenCulture. http://www.openculture.com/2013/01/hannah_arendts_original_articles_on_the_banality_of_evil_in_the_inew_yorkeri_archive.html
Wheeler, Ben. “Reality is What You Can Get Away With: Fantastic Imaginings, Rebellion and Control in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.” Critical Survey, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2005, pp. 95-108. Jstor. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41556096 Accessed 26 October 2016.