“Care for a little necrophilia?”
Although Terry Gilliam had already established the highly imaginative filmic style we now associate him with above his Monty Python animations, no one could have imagined the scale of what would become his unequivocal masterpiece, Brazil. There were shades of its escapism in Time Bandits and its bureaucratic satire in short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance, but nothing as grandiose as Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) fantastical dreamscape juxtaposed against his Orwellian, nightmarish reality. In fact, Gilliam even sought to title the film 1984 1/2 before legalities made it impossible. So, needing something else to epitomize its universality of oblivious joy in the absence of actual joy, inspiration came upon visiting an empty beach where one “sunbather” sat beneath its overcast sky smiling giddily to Ary Barroso‘s 1939 tune “Aquarela do Brazil”.
A whimsical tune that would begin, end, and be hummed throughout the film’s duration, it could put a bounce in anyone’s step no matter how depressed or defeated they might feel. And once we’re introduced to this world, it isn’t long before we see how much its citizens need something simple and innocuous like its melody to get through the pain and suffering. Everyone is pretty much brainwashed as it is—rich, poor, middle class. The wealthy sit undisturbed at meals despite terrorist bombs blowing a hole in the tables adjacent to them while the impoverished helplessly and blindly sign bills, receipts, and contracts as their loved ones are falsely imprisoned right before their very eyes by a strike force of armored officers. The rich can’t be bothered and the poor can’t fight back.
But Lowry unwittingly finds himself caught between both worlds due to an unexplainable love. If the oppressively inept government could outlaw dreams they would so men like Sam couldn’t fantasize about breaking free from the constraints of the status quo to save his damsel in distress. Clothed in a metallic breastplate with expansive wings allowing him to soar through the clouds in search of this nameless woman held captive by creatures in grotesque, baby-faced masks for their giant samurai overlord, he is the master of his own destiny. Only when he awakes does the futility of life remind him he’s wasting away in a cubicle performing a menial clerk job for an incompetent boss (Ian Holm‘s Mr. Kutrtzmann) who cowers in anxiety with every little issue he needs Sam to fix.
In hilarious fashion, one mistake shows how little control anyone in or out of power has. A fly—well, blame should go to the man who kills it—falls and causes one of the government’s retro/steampunk/anachronistically futuristic typewriting computers to hitch and alter the name Archibald Tuttle to Archibald Buttle on one of many warrants for his arrest. Buttle is therefore taken, tortured, and killed while the error creates a chain of bureaucratic paperwork no one wants to take responsibility for. The Ministry of Information looks to put the onus on the Department of Information Retrieval and vice versa as Lowry proves the only person calm enough to simply file the work and be done. But as anyone today can attest, being the smart one within an establishment of imbeciles is never a safe position.
From here Sam’s adventures progress until he runs into his dream woman in real life. A truck driver named Jill Layton (Kim Greist), she’s actually trying to help the Mr. Buttle’s widow (Sheila Reid) get retribution as Lowry hopes to sweep the incarceration under the rug and go about the monotonously simplistic day-to-day he’s refused promotions to continue enjoying. Since this mistake is snowballing out of control behind the scenes with paperwork and receipts piling up, getting misplaced, and causing even more forms to be drawn, their parts in preventing its quiet expunction puts them on every government agency’s radar. She’s deemed a terrorist and he a treasonous enemy of the state who used official channels to help her; this all while the real bad guy (Robert De Niro‘s HVAC engineer Tuttle) remains free.
Is Tuttle really the bad guy, though? Or is he a force for good—albeit in a violently divisive manner—against the faceless totalitarianism keeping this dystopia in line? Gilliam wonderfully fleshes out his aesthetic to force these questions with propaganda posters and his extreme contrast of aristocratic consumerist bliss against the lawless squalor of a poor populace barely scraping by while their children run amok. The only commonality each citizen possesses is his/her need for a television to escape the harsh reality faced everyday as well as to give the government an avenue to retain control. Unlike Orwell, though, Gilliam didn’t set out to manufacture a vision of a despicably cruel future. He instead built a heightened, cynical caricature of the world outside his own window—one still (more?) relevant today.
There is a ton of situational comedy like Pryce’s ambitious, old friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin) being so entrenched in his own fiscal and personal safety that he’ll make his wife change her name when his boss (Peter Vaughan‘s Mr. Helpmann) thinks it’s something else. Nepotism is the root of putting people who no nothing about managing into management positions while those who want to work like Tuttle’s freelance heating repairman are refused entry. This officially sanctioned paperwork system not only makes customers crazy like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though, but also the employees forced to abide by the rules—just ask Bob Hoskins‘ Spoor. It makes men like Lime (Charles McKeown) keep his head down in passive aggressive anger and Holm’s Kurtzmann in fear of being blamed because he should.
And while all of them struggle to exist in the daily grind there are women like Sam’s mother Ida (Katherine Helmond) and her well off friend Mrs. Terrain (Barbara Hicks) spending their money on eccentric plastic surgeons like Jim Broadbent‘s Dr. Jaffe to look younger. Gilliam has created a darkly comic monster illuminating the greed and ego that has slowly taken over the world. He’s stated that he moved to England because he knew he would have become a bomb-throwing terrorist himself if he had remained in America. One could say Brazil is exactly the police state he saw the USA transforming into and he left before he became a “hero” like Tuttle. It’s not as though he didn’t get his fair share of terrorism in Britain too, what with the IRA and all.
Cowritten by Tom Stoppard and McKeown, these are the strong ideas at the back of Brazil‘s cathartically eye-opening art piece with humor for an audience blind to the truth. Some dreams aren’t as starkly different from real life as Lowry’s flights of fancy no matter how metaphoric they may prove. As Gilliam shows in an ending so pessimistic it forced Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg to cut a happier, forty-minutes shorter version that still airs on TV, some of us walk through life in a haze due to our inability to face the horror. We go about our business thinking heinous acts not directly affecting us are unimportant, forgetting the bigger picture. It’s only a matter of time before they arrive on your front door, though, where your false optimism can no longer shield you from the wreckage.