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"Don't fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardise your credit rating."

Brazil is the second instalment of what Terry Gilliam calls his Trilogy of Imagination, which started with Time Bandits (1981) and concluded with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989).

While not my favourite Terry Gilliam film (I'm always going to like Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys more), Brazil is undoubtedly one of his most accomplished works as a filmmaker. Of the entire Imagination Trilogy, it is certainly the one with the strongest, least episodic story and has his most sympathetic protagonist in Sam Lowry (wonderfully played by career best Jonathan Pryce). It also has the best supporting cast of all Gilliam's films, featuring numerous show-stealing cameos by Robert De Niro, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent, and Peter Vaughan. My favourite is probably Ian Richardson's two scene appearance as Mr Warrenn, who doesn't seem to do anything except roam around his labyrinth office floor issuing orders to a trailing platoon of subordinates.

This is the film where Gilliam really perfected his signature style and remains his most influential film, the one everybody steals bits and pieces from. Even extracts from Michael Kamen's score pop up all over the place. As with all his films, Brazil is really just an excuse for Gilliam and his art department to go nuts. And they really indulge themselves creating the retro futurist technological nightmare that Sam calls home as well as the fantasy world where he's a winged knight battling against a gigantic samurai warrior and other monstrous creatures to rescue his imprisoned love.

Brazil is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (which the director admits he never actually read) as seen by a bunch of absurdists. The film's totalitarian state is a ridiculous bureaucratic nightmare, an ordered chaos that only seems to be efficient at crushing those who oppose it, and even then it doesn't always get the right man. It is a society where public enemy number one is a rogue heating engineer who goes in and fixes things without filling out the right paper work first. It is a world in complete decay and probably only a few years from total collapse, but no one wants to fix all the obvious problems because that would mean admitting there are problems and no one dares do that. The state and those who represent it cannot be questioned. When Mr Helpmann calls Jack's wife Barbara instead of Allison, Jack starts calling her Barbara as well and does so for the rest of the film. Correcting the boss is just unthinkable to him. To do so could be fatal, not to mention screw up any chance he has of being promoted.

Helpmann, Jack and their like are the closest thing the film has to antagonists, but they are never depicted as being overly villainous. They're all self-serving cowards only interested in preserving their place in the social hierarchy or advancing beyond it. They are all indifferent to the terrible things they do, not seeing it as even a necessary evil, but just another 9-5 job. Jack is a professional torturer who feels zero empathy and remorse for the horrors he inflicts and doesn't see a problem in bringing his young daughter to hang out and play in his office while he's murdering people in the next room. Even the state's faceless troop are allowed a moment to remove their masks and complain about having to do their job in such uncomfortable head gear.

But the film isn't just preoccupied with poking fun at Orwell. It gets some good digs in at contemporary consumer culture (highways walled by billboards, shoes for hats because it's the latest fashion, everyone getting Sam the same shitty Christmas gift) and our over-reliance on technology to make things easier for us. All the tech in Brazil is designed to look like how someone from the 1940s with not a single care for pleasing aesthetics might've envisioned things like computers, surveillance cameras and coffee machines. Like the state's bureaucracy, all this technology is needlessly complicated, never works properly, and is omnipresent. It is an infestation seeping out of every wall in the city. Even the posh restaurants and the homes of the rich are overrun with ugly ducts, pipes and wires.

What Brazil is ultimately best known for is its ending and the long, bitter battle the director had with Universal in order to keep it. The studio heads wanted the film to have a very commercially friendly happy ending. Gilliam wanted the film to have a happy ending too, just not a commercially friendly one. Throughout the film Sam tried his hardest to make his dream a reality, but reality wouldn't let him and set out to destroy him completely for having the nerve. As with Orwell's Winston Smith, Sam discovered that the state was just too powerful for the individual like him to stand against. But rather than submit to the will of the oppressor and play their game, he kicks open the door marked INSANITY and makes his escape. He couldn't make his dreams reality so he has made reality his dreams. The Ministry might have his body, but his mind and soul are now beyond even their reach. He has, as Mr Helpmann puts it, gotten away from them.

Notes and Quotes

--Like pretty much all of Gilliam's movies, Brazil's biggest weaknesses is its female characters. They're all either terribly underwritten or little more than recurring jokes. The romance between Sam and Jill never really convinces. You get why he's drawn to her, she's his fantasy made flesh, but never why she's drawn to him when all he's done since they met is fuck up her life.

--The first draft of the script was written by Gilliam with Charles Alverson, who went uncredited for his work. It was later rewritten by Tom Stoppard, and then finally by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, who also has the small role of Harvey Lime. Working titles included The Ministry, 1984 ½, The Ministry of Torture, How I Learned to Live with the System—So Far, and So That's Why the Bourgeoisie Sucks.

--De Niro wanted to play Jack, but Gilliam had already promised the role to Palin so he took the role of Tuttle instead.

--The film's subtly implies that the many terrorist attacks are in fact the result of the city's vast technological infrastructure suffering catastrophic system failures. Non-existent terrorists are blamed for the explosions because the state will not admit that the system is broken and needs fixing.

--A version of 'Aquarela do Brasil' was recorded for the film by Kate Bush, but ended up not being used.

--There is a strong implication that Sam has an Oedipal complex and that the fantasy woman that Jill resembles is in fact his mother when she was younger. The only time Jill appears like his fantasy is when she dresses up in his mother's clothes and wig. They then make love in his mother's bed. The next morning she wraps herself in a bow for him and says "Something for an executive", the same thing his mother said to him when she gave him his Christmas present. Finally, when Sam encounters his mother during his escape dream, her cosmetic surgery has made her so young that she now completely resembles Jill. This also gives Dr Jaffe's earlier line about Sam having seen his mother with her clothes off a whole new meaning.

--Love the cleaner who keeps working even as there's a massive shootout happening all around her, which then turns into an amusing homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin.

--Tuttle, the man who became a rebel because he hated paperwork, is literally consumed by paperwork.

--Love the train carriages that was made entirely of fuchs glass blocks.

Sam: "I only know you got the wrong man."
Jack: "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?"

Arresting Officer: "This is your receipt for your husband... and this is my receipt for your receipt."

Santa Claus: "What would you like for Christmas?"
Little Girl: "My own credit card."

Interviewer: "How do you account for the fact that the bombing campaign has been going on for thirteen years?"
Mr. Helpmann: "Beginners' luck."

Harry Tuttle: "Listen, this old system of yours could be on fire and I couldn't even turn on the kitchen tap without filling out a 27b/6. Bloody paperwork."

Three and a half out of four doors marked INSANITY.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig


  1. Great review of one of my favourite films.
    Thanks Mark.

  2. For a very long time, I was certain I'd seen this movie. I just read this review and realized that I have never seen this movie. Isn't it weird when that happens?

  3. Oh, gosh, Billie, Brazil is a must see, maybe my favorite film of all time. Its visual inventiveness is almost unparalelled. It's almost too dense to take in the first time you see it. There's just so much to look at in every scene. And in some ways, it's more relevant now than the Stalinist-inspired 1984: it's a surveillance state, yes, but a capitalist consumer society with sharp class differences. The biggest contrast for me is that in 1984, it's deliberate whereas in Brazil there's a sense that there's nobody home at the top and the whole system is careening into madness on its own momentum. Which, in a way, is almost more frightening.

    And while I suppose you're right that many of the female characters are little more than recurring jokes, they are at least funny jokes.


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