Review: Brazil (1985)

Brazil is a dystopian love letter to cinema and a terrifying story of citizenship in the information age

By Zeke Trautenberg

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil depicts a city of grey concrete apartment blocks, groaning air ducts, and mountains of paperwork sorted by a mass of grey-suited bureaucrats. This dystopian world of the information age exists in stark contrast to the sterile, utilitarian, and efficient future promised by companies like Apple and embodied by mid-century utopian urban planning projects like Brasilia. In this fictional city, order coexists with dysfunction. Elevators have minds of their own, heating systems fail, and an intransigent government imprisons and tortures its own citizens with impunity.  

From the beginning, the film plays with the viewer’s expectations and perspective. The film opens with a shot of a cloud-filled blue sky. Titles on the screen announce that it is 8:49 p.m. and “Somewhere in the 20th Century.” These titles set the pattern for the contradictions and ellipsis that characterize the film’s larger narrative and structure. The time (8:49 p.m.) is definite, but the place and year are not specified. Likewise, the phrase of “Somewhere in the 20th Century,” instead of “Sometime in the 20th Century,” emphasizes the connection between time and place. The twentieth century is not just a temporal epoch, but a place to be depicted, explored, and imagined on film. This first scene concludes with the camera moving towards the darkened city below.

The protagonist of the film, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), lives in this forbidding city. Sam holds a prominent position in the document department of the Ministry of Information, where he assists his inept boss with reams of paperwork and daydreams about a mysterious blonde woman—who later materializes as the government suspect Jill Layton (Kim Greist). This Leviathan-like ministry, whose operating budget consumes seven percent of the gross national product, implants itself into every crevice of the city. Its insidious reach is conveyed in Constructivist and social realist style posters pasted across the city, which feature sinister slogans like “Suspicion Breeds Confidence,” “Don’t Suspect a Friend. Report Him,” and “Mind That Parcel. Eagle Eyes Can Save A Life.”

The film’s intricate plot is set in motion by a case of mistaken identity. When Harry Buttle is arrested instead of Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), Sam becomes embroiled in the government’s anti-terrorist campaign. The Deputy Minister of Information blames “Bad sportsmanship” for the rise of terrorist bombings and declares: “A ruthless minority of people seem to have forgotten good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win.” The class divisions and resentments alluded to by the Deputy Minister, are reflected in the spatially and economically segregated city. However, Tuttle and Jill Layton, the government suspects, never articulate a set of demands or specify their opposition to the government. The closest thing we hear to a manifesto is Tuttle’s declaration to Sam: “We’re all in it together, kid.” Ironically, this statement also appears on a billboard showing a smiling nuclear family and their dog in a sleek blue car below the word “Happiness.” The duality of this phrase—on the one hand its a statement of solidarity and on the other a marketing slogan—underscores the larger narrative and structural ambiguities of the film, which in turn demand an active viewer.  

In addition to the exploration of marketing, Gilliam’s film explores cinephilia, what Susan Sontag calls “the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired,” and draws on a number of cinematic intertexts. Like the other men at the Ministry, Sam is drawn to the screens throughout the office that broadcast movies and television. The wall in his room covered with posters of glamour style photographs of early twentieth-century film stars. And when it is mentioned that Casablanca (1942) will be shown on television, Sam expresses his enthusiasm for the film by uttering Humphrey Bogart’s famous line: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” The similarities between Bogart’s line and Tuttle’s parting phrase are unequivocal and reflect the centrality of cinephilia in the film.

Beyond these direct references to cinema, Gilliam’s film engages with the medium itself and draws connections with silent film-era characters. The oneiric sequences of the film—which feature Sam as a flying glam-rock warrior doing battle with a giant armored samurai—serve as allegories of cinema and its capacity to create. In the same vein, Sam’s dream of a city rising out of the earth serves a metonym of the film’s representation of a fictional metropolis. On a related note, the ingenuous disposition and elastic movements of Jonathan Pryce’s character recall Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in Modern Times (1936) and Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Tati’s film in particular offers a unique lens through which to consider Gilliam’s film. Both works depict worlds that are inundated with technology, but also profoundly alienating. Whereas Monsieur Hulot is a fish out of water, adrift in a rapidly urbanizing and modernizing post-war France, the protagonist of Brazil is an insider, albeit a naïve one, who seeks to uncover the invisible layers of an all-consuming bureaucracy.

Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s  Playtime

Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Brazil is part of a sub-genre of twentieth-century science fiction films that center of the dystopian city. Other films that form part of this lineage are Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The production design of these four films emphasizes monumental scale of the city and the diminutive size and power of its citizens. However, in terms of its narrative and production design, Metropolis is Brazil’s closest cousin. Both depict vertical cities and link power to monumental and self-contained structures. The New Tower of Babel in Metropolis and the headquarters of the Ministry of Information in Brazil are imposing buildings that embody the power of capitalism and the state, respectively. And while there is no physical equivalent to Metropolis’s utopian Eternal Gardens in Brazil, both films portray a hero who becomes disenchanted with the urban elite and in his efforts to help the oppressed, unearths the dreadful human cost of sustaining the city.

The vertical city of  Metropolis

The vertical city of Metropolis

The key difference between Metropolis and Brazil is the kind of economies they depict. Whereas the Metropolis centers on an industrial economy managed and owned by a wealthy capitalist class, Brazil portrays an information economy controlled by a state bureaucracy that operates with impunity. If the voracious mouth of Moloch in Lang’s film exemplifies the exploitation of the producer-based economy, then the short-circuited gizmos in Sam’s apartment reflect a consumer-centric economy, in which technology pervades domestic life. Gilliam’s film satirizes the fetishization of the citizen as a consumer: even terrorist suspects are referred to as “customers” by the security services. In this dystopian society, citizens’ contract with the government is not social (in the Rousseauian sense), but transactional. The values of liberalism—belief in the dignity of all, equality before the law, freedom of speech—are incompatible with a totalitarian state that is only accountable unto itself.

The information-based, consumer-centered economy depicted in Brazil is not benign. It is monitored and controlled by bureaucrats who follow an endless number of regulations and adhere to an opaque set parameters. However, the purview of state power extends beyond the collection of information—torture is also part of the government’s repertoire. In our era of mass government spying in which information is consumed and exploited with impunity, the film’s story of naked and unchecked power resonates. However, what makes Brazil so vital and prescient is Sam’s final, terrifying revelation: masked or unmasked, injustice endures.

Director: Terry Gilliam

Running Time: 132 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Embassy International Pictures/UFA/Criterion Collection

(First published in Párrafo 451)