“Brazil” - Terry Gilliam (1985)

Brazil was not a commercial success upon its theatrical release in 1985, but I hold it to be a monument in Expressionistic filmmaking and also one of the greatest films ever made.  Not only does the film cover universal issues of human aspirations and feeling, but it also shows us how these are being jeopardized within the ever-enclosing social frame of our modern world.  This concern about oppressive social control, of course, is not new. Indeed the issues that Brazil raises concerning how the misuse of information threatens the viability of our social enterprise go back to the 1949 publication of George Orwell’s novel 1984, a story which is Brazil’s thematic inspiration.  But in some ways, Brazil presents this threat as an even more comprehensive and disturbing problem than Orwell did.  I will return to this issue later.

From the opening scenes it is evident that the evocation of 1984 is woven into Brazil’s very aesthetic fabric.  Although Brazil’s story is said to take place “sometime in the 20th century”, the architecture, clothing fashions, and everyday technology all appear to be very much that of 1949.  But beyond those similarities, what takes place in the film appears to be an almost apocalyptic vision of the future seen through a 1949-dated Orwellian lens.  This quasi-futuristic (sometimes called “retro-futuristic”) vision is enhanced by what would have at that time (in 1949) been futuristic technological advances, such as  computer technology that is a bit more advanced than that of the otherwise early 1940's - 1950's style.

The narrative In this retro-future milieu concerns the fate of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a low-level employee of the government’s Ministry of Information.  By means of this ministry, the government maintains a pervasive level of surveillance on society and urges all citizenry to be suspicious and to report everything they see.  Throughout the film, one sees ominous wall posters and statue engravings with messages like  [1]:
  • “Trust in Haste, Regret at Leisure”
  • “Suspicions Breeds Confidence”
  • “Be Safe: Be Suspicious”
  • “Don’t Suspect a Friend, Report Him”
  • “Help the Ministry of Information Help You”
  • "Loose Talk Is Noose Talk"
Lowry works for a division within the ministry, the Department of Records, where all this gathered information is stored.  But there is also another division in the ministry, the Department of Information Retrieval, which is responsible for collecting and maintaining the “integrity” of the information. 

Of course we know that information technology is immensely valuable in today’s society. But the problem with the modern and conventional, but naive, view of information is that it is all assumed to be objective and timeless.  In truth, however, the “information” that is collected is always associated with some physical interaction in the world, and this invariably has some context, which is never completely captured.  In fact as the computational artificial intelligence community discovered some time ago, this invariably-present interactive context is usually too vast to be collected and stored for each interaction.  So compromises must be made; some of the context must be ignored.  For the kinds of interaction examined by the physical sciences, this is less of a problem, because physics and chemistry attempt to derive physical laws that are more or less context-independent.  But for the interactions involving complex systems, particularly involving biological organisms such as ourselves, everything is connected to everything: the extended interactive context can only be ignored at our peril.  This is why sharing information indiscriminately and without regard to the original authentic context and the concerns of the original interaction participants can be misleading and harmful. But such pervasive and contextually ignorant information gathering and processing is exactly what is happening on in Brazil’s society, and it is also happening in our society, as well.  As a result, serious mistakes can happen.  One such mistake marks the opening event of the film.

Despite the inevitable weaknesses of aggregating a vast mountain of “objective” information, Brazil’s tightly controlled society obsessively works to do just that.  And to support this effort, the government seeks to keep track of everything that happens so that no terrorists can take advantage (yes, in Brazil, made long before 911, the government employs the specter of terrorism to justify their invasive policies in the same way that modern governments do).

In the face of this stultifying and mechanistic obsession with information collection, Brazil depicts a few key individuals who seek to preserve the intimacy and authenticity of their private interactions.  In fact if you think about it, this is what true love is all about: it is a unique, totally engaging and immersive encounter between two individuals that cannot be shared or objectified.  In Brazil’s grim world of universal information storage and retrieval, Sam Lowry dreams of the uncanny, irreducible magic of romantic love.  The story of the films looks at what happens to these dreams.

The narrative of Brazil goes through four stages:
  1. Introduction and Setup
  2. Finding Jill
  3. Rescuing Jill from the Information Society
  4. The Getaway

1. Introduction and Setup
At the outset, the film shows an office in the Ministry of Information’s Department of Records, where a dead fly falls into a printer, causing it to mechanically misprint a person’s name.  Instead of Mr. “Tuttle”, a debtor’s invoice winds up being assigned to Mr. “Buttle”.  Straightaway, armed policeman break into Buttle’s apartment and take him prisoner, and soon Buttle dies of a heart attack while being tortured under interrogation.  But this film is not about Buttle and his family; it’s about people on the periphery of this opening event.  Buttle’s arrest was witnessed by his upstairs neighbor Jill Layton, and Sam Lowry’s Depart of Records is involved in this mistake, as well.

In this opening section of the film, the viewer is introduced to Lowry’s life and acquaintances.  These include his old friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin), a superficially friendly social climber and confident extrovert who works in the Department of Information Retrieval and who is the social opposite of Lowry, the sensitive and perceiving introvert.  There is also an introduction to Lowry’s work environment in the Department of Records and to Lowry’s vain and wealthy mother, who is dedicated to rejuvenating herself via plastic surgery.  Lowry’s nights are filled with romantic dreams of him being a superhero soaring through the clouds and rescuing his imaginary beautiful maiden and true love from fantasy monsters.  
But in the midst of all the inertia and drudgery of Lowry’s bureaucracy-filled world, he happens onto one person who is entirely different from all this – a mysterious freelance repairman who shows up at his apartment and fixes mechanical infrastructure that has broken down.  This free soul turns out, in fact, to be Mr. Archibald Tuttle (Robert De Niro), the originally intended addressee of the government’s misdirected invoice.  He had quit working for the government’s Central Services and become a rogue free-lanacer, because he couldn’t stand all the bureaucratic paperwork.
Although Lowry is generally powerless in the outside world and powerless (without Tuttle’s help) to deal with the mechanical failures of his apartment’s heating system, he is an invaluably proficient operator at his office in the Department of Records, where his human touch is occasionally needed to solve simple problems that have not been accounted for in the government’s procedures.  On one such occasion while delivering a refund check to Buttle’s widow, he catches a glimpse of the neighbor, Jill Layton, and he recognizes her as the fantasy maiden of his own dreams.  She runs away before he can find her, but he does manage to learn her name.

So at this point in the film, we understand Lowry’s circumstances and his quest: to find Jill Layton. His adversary in this quest will not turn out to be a specific person, but will be the system itself.

2.  Finding Jill
At his office in the Department of Records, Sam learns that Jill Layton’s file is classified and held by the separate Department of Information Retrieval.  Evidently Jill is suspected of terrorist associations, and Sam realizes that she is in danger.  To get access to Jill’s records and help her, Sam will need to get a position in that separate, secretive division.  So he reluctantly seeks the aide of his socialite mother to see if her influence can secure him a job over there.

In the meantime Sam finds his apartment in a shambles due to pugnacious workers from Central Services who are peeved to learn that the outlaw repairman Tuttle had fixed his earlier heating problem.  Here again the system shows its ugly face.

Finally his mother’s influence lands Sam a job and a tiny office at the Department of Information Retrieval, where he ultimately learns that Jill’s personal file is held in a special room where torture-filled interrogations are conducted by Sam’s friend, Jack Lint.  Sam goes there and manages to talk Jack into giving her Jill’s file.  Sam’s goal is now to find Jill and save her from being taken by the authorities.
3.  Rescuing Jill
In the nick of time, Sam sees Jill at the front desk of the Ministry of Information and rescues her just before she can be arrested by the police.  Jill is suspicious of Sam’s government affiliation and runs away, but Sam persists and succeeds in mollifying her concerns.  Shortly thereafter while visiting a department store, however, an attack by unknown armed men causes mayhem and the police arrest Sam and Jill.  Sam is let off, but he is now ostracized by his new boss and his old friend Jack for aiding a “terrorist”.

When Sam returns to his apartment, he discovers that is has been taken over and wrecked by the antagonistic Central Servicemen.  The mysterious and oddly heroic Tuttle again shows up and settles the score.  Jill somehow shows up, too, and now she is showing signs of responding to Sam’s amorous longings. 

They retreat to his mother’s empty apartment, but before making love, Sam rushes out to perform a heroic act.  He will break into the Department of Information Retrieval and destroy Jill’s files, so that she will disappear from their surveillance system.  This he manages to do, and they then spend a night of heavenly bliss together.

But in the morning the romantic spell is emphatically crushed when the police crash into the apartment and arrest the two of them in bed.  Under arrest and put into solitary confinement, Sam is informed that Jill is dead.  He is taken to a tower torture chamber, where some unspeakable torture is about to be performed on him.
4.  The Getaway
Just before the torture session is about to commence, though, Tuttle and his allies miraculously break into the tower, killing Jack and rescuing Sam.  Sam and Tuttle run away, but not before blowing up the Ministry of Information building.  But things are becoming more and more surreal by the second.  In a chilling scene, Sam’s savior, Tuttle, is engulfed in windblown newspapers and disappears altogether.  Sam makes it back to his mother’s apartment, escapes another armed police attack, and eventually finds himself in a prefab home that is being carried on a truck driven out of town by Jill.  The two of them will escape together to a romantic sylvan paradise, far removed from the government’s oppressive control.  But this entire getaway turns out be just a dream.

In the narrative world of Brazil, the adversary blocking the attainment of the narrative goal is not an individual or a group, nor is it even an obstacle-laden or dangerous natural environment, such as a mountain to climb.  No, as I said earlier, the adversary here is a system that is based on a misconception of information.  The clever way this is depicted is what make the story, scripted by director Terry Gilliam, along with Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown (who also has a memorable bit part as “Harvey Lime”), so effective.

The cinematography and special effects in Brazil are remarkable even by today’s standards.  There are all sorts of eccentric but mood-inspiring moments, and they flow together into a smooth continuity, even affording such moments as Gilliam’s explicit homage to Segei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925).  The expressionistic presentation not only establishes an evocative mood but also carries semantic import.  Throughout the film there are constant visual reminders of the “mechanical” way that context-stripped information is transferred and crudely used in this society.  In fact many of the  mechanical operations depicted seem clumsy and subject to failures.  Whenever Sam takes an elevator, it seems to malfunction in some way.  This is the way of mindless, brute mechanics.  In terms of physical architecture, there are bulky heating and cooling ducts everywhere, symbolizing the blind connectedness of everything and everyone.  But this connectedness is purely mechanical and lacks the subtlety of truly situated interactions.  At one point Sam Lowry gets frustrated with the relentless transmission of pneumatic information tubes in his office, so he hooks the "input" and “output” tubes together so that they effectively (and symbolically) create a “short circuit”, which causes the entire pneumatic tube system to blow up.

This blind connectedness of information flow, without attention paid to the subtlety of interactions, has caused everyone in the society shown in this film to avoid responsibility.  To remove any shred of meaningful commitment and responsibility from government affairs, people are constantly required to sign fine-printed authorizations that remove perpetrators from further responsibility.  (This may remind you of the many occasions you are required to read a lengthy and virtually unreadable authorization statement on a Web page and then mouse-click your acceptance of it.) So everyone here is supposedly connected via information transfer, and yet everyone is actually disconnected from any meaningful interactions.  Thus in one scene when armed attackers enter a restaurant, most of the patrons pay no attention – because it is none of their business.  The misuse of information transfer in the society shown here has cheapened, if not eviscerated, true human connections.

A reminder of how our own current “information society” can so readily dismantle people’s lives via shoddy information misuse came to the fore recently in connection with news about Neda Soltani.  She was an Iranian university lecturer who in the wake of the disruptions associated with the corrupted presidential “election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was mistaken for another woman, Neda Agha Soltan, who was shot dead on the streets of Tehran during a demonstration.  Journalists and bloggers found Ms. Soltani’s photograph and spread it around the Internet as a picture of the murdered girl who was considered a martyr.  This mistaken identity error (like “Buttle” and “Tuttle”) more or less wrecked Ms. Soltani’s life, and she was fortunate to escape Iran before the government secret police could get their hands on her.

With respect to this theme of information misuse in Brazil, there are two specific aspects of the story that I would like to mention: the matter of Tuttle and the matter of the film’s ending.  The Archibald Tuttle character has only a few brief appearances, and yet his persona is crucial to the story.  He is not someone who transfers misleading “information” around, instead he does things.   He is a man of action and interaction.  When he comes to Sam’s apartment, he knows exactly how to set things right, and then mysteriously and gracefully flies away off the apartment balcony, suspended by a high wire.   How does he know that Sam is a compatriot in this struggle?  In fact he is the embodiment of a spiritual savior, but he doesn’t operate on the plane of noble thoughts and ideas, but in the world of action.  At one point he says to Sam the same thing that appears as a big-lie shibboleth on government wall posters: “we’re all in this together”.  When the government says it, it means implicitly, “we know everything about you”.  But when Tuttle says it, he means something different – that he and Sam are meaningfully connected in an authentic engagement.  This is an engagement that cannot meaningfully be put down on paper, and Tuttle hates paperwork.  So it is memorably disturbing at the film’s end when Tuttle is overwhelmed by discarded newspapers and swept away. 

This brings me to the matter of Brazil’s ending.  When the film was to be released in the US, the American distributor, Universal, feeling that Gilliam’s ending was too bleak and would displease American audiences, demanded a re-edit so that it would have a happy ending.  But I believe that Gilliam’s original cut does have a happy ending – much better and happier than any superficial rescue scene.  What Brazil celebrates and what is highlighted by Gilliam’s ending, is our belief that dreams can be real, that wrongs can be righted, that love can be found and fulfilled.  At the end of the film, Sam’s spirit is unbroken.

It is this illusion of superficial information connectedness that is soul-destroying in Brazil, and Sam Lowry’s soul has not fallen to it. Where Sam’s mind lives is somewhere else – in the world of human aspirations and dreams.  And that is why the film’s title is what it is.  In fact Brazil is not mentioned in any way in the film, although the song (actually, Aquarela do Brasil, 1939) is featured on the soundtrack and hummed by Sam Lowry at the film’s finish.  Though perhaps relatively few viewers have actually been there, the word suggests in people’s minds a dreamy faraway place, where music, magic, and love can happen.  As the song says:

When stars were entertaining June,
We stood beneath an amber moon
And softly murmured someday soon...
We kissed and clung together

Tomorrow was another day
The morning found us miles away
With still a million things to say.

And now
When twilight dims the skies above
Recalling thrills of our love
There's one thing I'm certain of...
Return, I will,
To old Brazil. 

  1. See http://www.faqs.org/faqs/movies/brazil-faq/