A Flight of Fancy: #24, Brazil


Director:  Terry Gilliam

Cast:  Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughan, Kim Greist, Jim Broadbent

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class B (2/7, a hot white star).  Dense and complex, but leavened with a wry and quirky sense of humor, Brazil is an amazing visual and thematic accomplishment.


Many of us have fond memories of Monty Python, an absurd British comedy television series structured as a sketch show but ably assisted by Terry Gilliam’s animations into a sort of stream-of-consciousness flow from sketch to sketch.  So I was expecting this film, directed by Terry Gilliam and featuring Michael Palin, one of the original members of the Monty Python troupe, to be funny and touching and absurd and somewhat disturbing, much like Gilliam’s first feature-length film Time Bandits.

I definitely got all of the above, but one thing this film is not, by any traditional approach, is science fiction (yes, yes, I’m linking to my own discussion of what science fiction is).  It is a dystopian satire, certainly, but it’s much more of a fantasy than it is a science fiction film, and my disappointment in that probably colored my reaction to the movie.

That said, it is a good movie, even if it isn’t really science fiction in my book.  It did extremely well in Europe, though the North American box office receipts were rather weak; like many of the films I’ve reviewed here, however, it achieved something of a cult favorite status in subsequent years.  Some of the poor box office take is a product of the acrimonious relationship between director and studio, and that definitely affected how the movie was publicized.

Gilliam filmed the story exactly the way he wanted it.  Universal Studios, however, felt that the film was, at 142 minutes, too long, and they wanted a happy ending for it.  Gilliam refused; Universal shelved the movie.  After a year, Gilliam took out a full page ad asking when it would be released.  Gilliam and Universal compromised, and Gilliam cut 11 minutes from the film, and added an ending sequence including white clouds in a blue sky and the reprise of the tune Aquarelo do Brazil, one of the film’s recurrent musical motifs.  You could write reams about how the dispute came about, but it’s fascinating to me that a film about how the modern world grinds down the individual using the tools of bureaucracy to stifle dreams and creativity was itself an apparent victim of the very process it depicts.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy doesn’t like his life.  Boy does like his dreams, though, in which he loves Girl.  Then Boy meets the real-world Girl, and everything goes horribly wrong.  Girl rejects Boy.  Boy takes new job to find out more about Girl.  Girl gets branded as a terrorist.  Boy uses his government position to save girl.  Government decides Boy is a terrorist.  Boy and Girl flee.  Boy is captured while Girl is killed.  Boy is tortured.  Boy goes insane.

Setup:  The lead character is Sam Lowry, a man who works as a government clerk in the Ministry of Information where he seems to be the only competent worker, and upon whom his supervisor relies to get things done and fix problems.  His mother is at least well-connected, and probably rich, and she wants more out of life for Sam than he does—she arranges promotions for him, attempts to ignite his ambition, and throws her friend’s daughter in his path.  Sam’s dream life, however, is anything but that of a lowly clerk in an oppressive and colorless society; he is a winged, armored warrior who flies to the rescue of a beautiful woman and battles monsters to save her.

Things begin to go wrong when the government goes after a suspected terrorist, Archibald “Harry” Tuttle.  Thanks to a fly in the typewriter, the government issues the orders for Archibald Buttle instead, and Buttle subsequently dies in the custody of the Department of Information Retrieval (at the hands of Lowry’s old friend Jack Lint, in fact).  Lowry decides to deliver the widow’s refund for the wrongful Department of Information Retrieval fees in person, and sees that her upstairs neighbor is Jill Layton, quite literally the woman of his dreams.  She wants nothing to do with him, and she pursues the issue of Buttle’s death in custody on her own.  Meanwhile Lowry comes in contact with the terrorist Tuttle, who is a renegade air conditioner repairman who fixes Lowry’s air conditioning without government sanction.  Lowry, stymied in his attempts to get information on Jill, prompts his mother to arrange a promotion to the Department of Information Retrieval, where he will be able to access the information on Jill Layton in the government’s archives.

At this point the stage is set, and the disaster is probably already evident to you as these disparate strands come together.  I haven’t mentioned some things which are important—Jack Lint, one of Lowry’s friends, works in Information Retrieval as a torturer, and the Department’s head is an old friend of Lowry’s father, for example.  Lowry’s mother is a vain and fashionable woman who undergoes plastic surgery the way some women buy shoes.  But you’ve got the basics, at any rate, so we can move on to my impressions.


As I mentioned in the introduction, I came into this film expecting a standard science fiction film with some humor and some wry twists; what I got was an Orwellian (more on that in a bit) vision of a bureaucracy gone mad—and madness is, without question, a central issue in the film.  I’m not sure why this movie was on the list of the Top Fifty Science Fiction films of all time, to be honest—it’s not that it’s not a good film, but rather that it’s a dystopian vision of the now.  Dystopias have a long history in science fiction, and many people associate the word with science fiction.  But in my book, this film is much closer to fantasy—it’s even called a fantasy in many of the press releases and publicity material.  So the movie was, through no fault of it or Terry Gilliam, something of a disappointment to me.

However, viewed in its own right, the movie is a phenomenal piece of art.  By turns funny, touching, absurd (in both good and bad ways), and complex, the film is a really solid effort in Gilliam’s “Imagination Trilogy” (preceded by the excellent Time Bandits and followed by The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), in each of which Gilliam explores imagination versus reality in a different way, and from the viewpoint of a different age as well.

The visuals in the film are stunning.  Everything in Sam Lowry’s dream life is larger than life, colorful, and full of motion.  His office, on the other hand, and for that matter most of the places in the real world, are colorless, drab and utilitarian.  The only exception is his mother and her home, which are, much like Sam’s dreams, big (in a metaphorical sense—Katherine Helmond was certainly not big) and bold and a riot of color and style.  Jill, Sam’s dream girl, is a striking woman, even with her hair cut short, and when the real Jill turns out to be a rough and tough truck driver, even her vehicle is big and bold.

Brazil’s set design is definitely unique and idiosyncratic.  Sometimes described as “retro-futurism,” Gilliam has commented that he wanted the look of the film to capture the entire Twentieth Century compacted down to a single moment, and also to look like the 1980s as it might be imagined by someone in the 1940s.  As a result, visually the old and the new coexist peacefully, typewriters beside computer screens.  The bizarre juxtapositions create some of the movie’s absurd impressions and give the film a unique look and feel.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the visual nature of the film is the ductwork.  Nearly every scene, with the exception of those which take place in the Ministry of Information, includes exposed ductwork of various types.  There’s a “commercial” in the opening segment of the film for ducts which can be selected to suit any customer’s preference.  The ducts are not just a striking visual, though; they tie into the plot because it’s Lowry’s air conditioning unit, ducts and all, which malfunctions and brings him into contact with the suspected terrorist Archibald Tuttle.  Gilliam doesn’t put things in just for the look of them—the ducts may well be symbolic and are closely tied in to the advance of the plot.

It is worth noting that the Ministry of Information was filmed in an old grain mill; according to some sources, it is now an IKEA furniture store.  Make of that what you will, in light of the movie’s themes.

The music—a light and airy orchestral score—is wildly inappropriate for a tragedy, and yet it fits the themes and the tone of the film entirely too well.  Gilliam picked Aquarela Do Brazil, commonly known simply as Brazil in the English-speaking world, as his thematic leitmotif, but it was a good choice.  The song is upbeat, opening with a swelling sequence of horns, and then invoking a swift drum beat.  The composer, Ary Barroso, wanted “to free the samba away from the tragedies of life.”  Given the way the film turns out, using the song and indeed naming the film for it seems entirely fitting, after all.

The performers do a more than simply good job, and it’s hard to pick any as better than the others.  But Katherine Helmond brings her trademark insouciance, beauty and comic timing to her role as Sam Lowry’s mother.  She even manages to make a hat shaped like a boot look both good and natural.  Michael Palin is a standout as the joyful torturer who loves his work, and Robert De Niro brings a sort of everyman quality to his role as the renegade air conditioner repairman cum resistance fighter.  The ubiquitous Ian Holm also does a very nice job with his role as Lowry’s hapless supervisor in the Ministry of Information.  Jonathan Pryce, in the lead as Sam Lowry, really shines in all aspects of the role, from projecting quiet desparation and despair to at least the intention of action as well as bewilderment and confusion.

While in some ways the story is a simple one—and it really is a boy-meets-girl sort of story set against a backdrop of tyranical government bureaucracy, the intersection of the two plot lines inevitably leading to tragedy—it is not told in a simple way, and for that matter the thematic implications of the story are anything but simple and straight-forward.  There’s a lot going on in the background of the shots, for example, that advances the story.  A half-heard interview might contain critical information; a fleeting glimpse of a sign or poster might have a slogan that helps to set the tone and make the why of the events occurring on-screen sensible.  In other words, you have to pay attention and work to keep up.  I’m not saying that you’ll never realize that the Department of Information Retrieval is, among other things, government-sponsored and controlled torture and interrogation, as a point like that is too fundamental to the film to let the viewer miss it.  But you may not realize it at first, and it might be a considerable surprise when you get to the end of the film.  There is little doubt in my mind that this film would repay a second and third viewing.

Among the other themes in Brazil, there’s a strong thread of paranoia and over-heated response to terrorism which may strike a chord with modern viewers.  At the Ministry of Information, for example, there’s a sign on the wall which reads “Be safe:  Be suspicious.”  Or how about “Mind that parcel.  Eagle eyes can save a life.”  For anyone who’s ever spent time in an airport in the wake of September 11, 2001, that’s a chilling echo of the things you hear and see these days.  Then there’s two posters which evoke 1984 and Big Brother:  “Don’t suspect a friend, report him.”  I immediately thought of the TSA’s slogan “If you see something, say something.”  Gilliam wisely includes the terrorists’ explosions without explaining who is responsible; the ambiguity behind the terrorism actually seems to drive the plot forward.

Another idea which may strike some viewers as chillingly prophetic is the government’s position that wrong-doers must pay for their own torture and incarceration.  In the hands of a government which seems less interested in fairness and more in the absolute letter of the law, and which regards wasting government time and paper as a crime worthy of torture, the point is perhaps less comically absurd than it is frightening.  One of the guards recommends to Lowry that he not resist too much, because it will destroy his credit rating….  This system is also why Lowry is in the Buttles’ apartment in the first place, as Buttle—wrongly arrested instead of Tuttle—was charged for his imprisonment and torture, and the government must give the money back to his widow since it isn’t entitled to it.

At least the government in Brazil is still a believer in truth, as the refund of Buttle’s funds suggests.  But Gilliam isn’t painting a picture of an evil government out to get its own citizens; he is instead showing a government and a society which is needlessly bureaucratic, and which grinds down the individual and crushes their dreams.  He uses Orwellian symbolism, certainly (he considered giving the film the title 1984-1/2 according to some sources), and the use of torture over a waste of paper and government time is clearly overkill—but in the end, the story is intended as a metaphor for Gilliam’s feeling that the modern world has a way of grinding the individual down and rendering him or her a mere cog in the machine.  And the only escape is fantasy….

At the end of the film, when Jack is torturing Sam, the tool in his hands is a very old-fashioned device indeed: it is inserted into the nose and pushed up into the brain, severing the frontal lobe.  In other words, it’s a tool for a frontal lobotomy.  Arguably, and in spite of my initial impression that Brazil is actually about Sam Lowry’s psychotic break from reality with tragic consequences for everyone around him, Lowry is completely sane—albeit taking great risks in the name of love and attaining his dreams—right up to the end of the film.  It is, instead, society itself which is insane.  That social insanity, of course, is why comic absurdities crop up throughout the movie.

Lowry’s insanity, and his visions of an escape from the torturers—including the renegade air conditioner repairman becoming a resistance fighter who winds up dissolving into a flurry of paperwork—is the closest thing Gilliam could give us to a happy ending.


All in all, Brazil is a funny and yet sad and disturbing film.  I’m glad I watched it, and it was entertaining and thought-provoking.  Given a little time, I’ll probably watch it again to see what I missed and how time alters the meanings I take from the film.  That, I think, is some of the highest praise I can give a movie.

However…the movie’s place in the Top Fifty Science Fiction films is, to me at least, not quite right.  Okay—it’s a dystopia.  Dystopias are often science fiction.  And yet this film is a work of pure imagination without any real reference to scientific advances, scientific concepts, or science.  That isn’t a bad thing; it’s merely an issue of categorization, and it’s coming from a self-confessed science fiction geek who almost literally read his way through the public library’s science fiction card catalog entry.  So it’s a great movie, but it’s not a great science fiction movie.


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