Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin, Ian Holm, Katherine Helmond, Ian Richardson, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, and Kim Greist
Runtime: 142 min.
by Brian Eggert
03/18/07 (edit 12/02/12)
Original Release Date:
The world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil has been trained in subjugation by a paperwork-obsessed government. Stamps and forms and proper clearances wear down on and render meaningless all freedoms, the layers of inescapable officialdoms abound draining all humanity. Inundated by this prevailing bureaucracy, which dominates nearly every aspect of human life, the film’s protagonist escapes through the only means available to him, his dreams, wherein he imagines himself a fanciful winged knight bound for love with an idealized damsel in distress. He tries to transmit that escapist gallantry from his dreamworld into his everyday life and finds reality’s obstacles are not so easy to maneuver; rather, they are piled upon one another so thick that they are impossible to overcome. The picture’s ultimate resignation that even in our dreams escape from The System remains unattainable materialized into a curious irony when a Hollywood producer nearly prevented Gilliam’s masterpiece, in its complete, cynical form, from being released. But after a long and dirty battle, Brazil triumphed and released unto the modern age a relevant, controversial, and visionary piece of cinema. Gilliam’s dream prevailed; however, if fighting within the film’s world, it might not have.
Released in 1985, Brazil marks Gilliam’s fourth complete effort as a filmmaker and his most artistically accomplished motion picture. Characteristic for the director here are details that invade every frame and an unmistakable, inexpressible mythic quality that elevates the picture to something more than cinema. It is a world foreign and unfamiliar; and moreover, it’s so completely a director’s dreams and nightmares come to potent life. With its infiltrating ducts and cloudy dream sequences, Brazil looks and feels unlike any other film, unless it is a Terry Gilliam film. In its technical and design innovations, the film realizes the visual potency of a fever dream through tactile effects and endless creative facets, all filtered through Gilliam’s trademarked artistic energy, an exhaustive element where imagination and ambition combine into a force capable of great art and self-destruction in the same motion. This would be the first of many projects for Gilliam in which his production mirrored the film he sought to make, bringing into question the director’s unconscious desire to perpetuate a situation where his film must survive its battle to the screen before it can truly reach audiences. No other Gilliam film would reflect its making or this pattern in Gilliam’s career more than Brazil, and through its arrival realize his incredible vision in a victory over oppressive influences in the name of artistic singularity.
Motion pictures such as Brazil that challenge authority find audiences dedicated to the idea of revolution; they succeed both as cult and commercial successes because people inherently desire rebellion, though generally resist being rebellious themselves. Standing up to your boss or to a government may seem unlikely, but watching a film fictionalizing such events is necessary and therapeutic. Movies about successful “rebellion” or anti-authority movements—such as Lindsay Anderson’s if.... (1968), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), or V for Vendetta (2005)—ultimately maintain despairing undertones when applied to real life issues. Despairing because, though people cheer on such fantastical films for showing victories over The System, in reality, the bureaucracies usually prevail, hence the fantastical elements in each example. Catharsis of this sort liberates, acknowledges that The System exists, and fights ruling powers through often unrealistic means—thus making them so appealing and wonderfully escapist. But these films forget The System consists of more than one institution; in actuality, our world has constructed systems on top of systems, and those are placed atop other systems, and so on, forever and beyond comprehension.
Brazil refuses to play into the hands of catharsis and is comparable to George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four, the authoritarian government dystopia novel from 1949. Though for different reasons, both stories end dismally and acknowledge the institution’s eventual victory over the individual. The book served as a warning against a government potentially relying on totalitarianism, which seemed likely to occur, according to Orwell’s book, only a few decades in the future. Brazil goes further and suggests that even the imagination comes under rule of a dictatorial society. Orwell’s world may be a futurology, or cautionary tale, but the same cannot be said for Brazil. Opening titles describe the setting of Gilliam’s film as existing “Somewhere in the 20th Century.” The city remains unknown, though one could presuppose it takes place in England (it was filmed in England, and Gilliam’s work with the British Monty Python troupe highlights this notion). But rather than assuming location, consider the setting an allegory representative of all cities and governments here and now: A city with skyscrapers endlessly high; offices with paperwork mandating every action; imperfect, wiry automations guiding and recording behavior. As a result, imagination, fantasy, and escape are minimally required from humanity.
Inspiration for Gilliam’s science-fiction infused, despondent world originated from a seventeenth century document found by Gilliam in his research; the document detailed the costs of what a person was required to pay for their own witch hunt interrogation. The Inquisition brought observers and character witnesses by the dozen to make or break a witch trial, spending much in official monies in the process; in addition, it took several man hours to torture a potential witness, which also accumulated costs, leaving only the accused to pay for his or her own interrogation or punishment. Gilliam saw a type of maddening bureaucratic logic at work in this document, analogous to daily lives filled with endless piles of soul-depleting paperwork, the quantification of all things through high finance and accounting, and inhumane business and social diplomacy spreading like a disease. But Gilliam insists his picture is not science fiction. The setting nonetheless writhes with industrialized technology as rampant as overgrown vines. Unlike Orwell’s novel, a future totalitarian government is not the enemy—not completely—rather how modern society floats on a surface of commonplace banality. Some link science fiction to the future, whereas an alternate reality, someplace unfamiliar, or in this case an allegory, can exist in a place with fictional technologies in the present day. Visually similar to the subterranean future shown in Gilliam’s own 12 Monkeys (1995), we see apparatuses made up of computer parts and monitors so small they require magnifiers, endless streams of ducts, and absolutist political entities running everything—all familiar, yet exaggerated for the sake of Gilliam’s message. The result is a contemporary-set fictional landscape.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), trapped by this bureaucratic, paperwork-obsessed routine at the Ministry of Information’s Department of Records, daydreams. Otherwise unfulfilled by his office routine, his inept boss oblivious beyond the deafening sound of the typing pool clicking away, Sam is left to his fantasies. He escapes into his imagination where he plays a hero—a silver-winged knight fighting desperately against a combative world to save the woman (Kim Greist), literally, of his dreams. One day, Sam sees the face of his fantasy woman somehow tangibly real and knows he must pursue her. The Ministry’s limitless confusion of red tape, with all its forms, receipts, filing, and governmental bric-a-brac, prevents Sam from discovering the identity of his desire made flesh. To find her, he resorts to desperate measures: Sam takes a promotion he does not want into Information Retrieval, which increases his Ministry security clearance, and allows him access to confidential information. Once promoted, he begins to be seen by his superiors when normally he would revel in his anonymity; he forgets about the dangers of The System. The actualization of his dream represents the possibility—and the possibility alone—of escape from a collective that is nonetheless inescapable.
Norman Garwood and Maggie Gray earned an Oscar nomination for their art and set decoration, owing a major portion of their visualizations to Gilliam, whose ceaselessly frenetic imagination exceeds that of any other filmmaker working today. Brazil illustrates a world obstructed by technology and architecture; we rarely, if ever, see the sky or any form of plant life, bodies of water, or animals—this is an unnatural world. Orderly, yet grimy and dark with the leftovers of smokestacks and long-since-new, ever-malfunctioning mechanisms lingering like dead branches, the physical world intrudes on both the viewer and the film’s characters. By the end of the picture, the viewer feels like a claustrophobic in a shrinking room. Described by Gilliam as “Frank Capra meets Franz Kafka”, the film’s look contains a 1940s architectural and costumed visage combined with a futuristic application of industrialism, expressionism, Victorianism, along with ubiquitous pipes, neon, and wires strewn about in a mad order. Ducts violate interior sets: large tubes run inelegantly through walls, penetrating internal landscapes, therein symbolizing how even in your home, the inescapable bureaucratic world infiltrates and observes. To film this untidy environment without losing touch with its characters requires a true visionary. Gilliam creates with manic artistry, sensitive both to visual and emotional realms, so much so that he has earned himself a reputation for being preoccupied with auteurisitic details.
Indeed, Gilliam originally wanted to call his film 1984 ½, combining Orwell’s prophecy with the directorial auteurism of Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1962). A marriage of auteurist drives and idealist machismo, Fellini’s film concerns a director (Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni) embracing dreams in place of a reality that does not suit him. Autobiographical for Fellini, the film entails personal pressures that mushroom while trying to complete his next project (in the film, a science fiction epic); those stressors distort and enhance his interpretation of the events around him. Thus, the viewer of 8½ is never completely sure which scenes represent reality and which represent fantasy. While the title 1984 ½ would have alluded to comparable great works of literature and film, Gilliam’s title has its own metaphor. Gilliam thought up his vacation-spot title Brazil while watching the sun set in the steel-producing city of Port Talbot in Whales. He imagined someone sitting on the blackened, coal dust-ridden beach, listening to a diverting old vacationer’s song like the famous “Maria Elena”. (In some retellings of the title’s story, “Maria Elena” is replaced with the song “Brazil”. In most retellings, Gilliam decides “Maria Elena” should be replaced by “Brazil”, it being a catchier tune. At some point during the film’s production, the Geoff Muldaur version of “Brazil” was chosen for the film’s theme and eventually became the title.) Whether resigned to dreaming of escape to Port Talbot or simply hoping for an otherwise impossible escape from Port Talbot, the ironically juxtaposed tune points out the desire to get away. When the song is hummed or echoes on the film’s soundtrack, its sardonic placement underscores the characters’ hopelessness in ever reaching an exotic beach, sunshine, or escape.
But there is no escape in Gilliam’s film, and he and co-writer Charles McKeown’s outlook offers no technological safeguards or contingencies to protect their characters, just brutal, unthinking bureaucracy. Consider how the film introduces its leads to each other. Sam and the real-life version of his fantasy, Jill Layton, meet through the brilliant device of a clerical error. One of the film’s first scenes shows a nameless Ministry technician in his office. A printer cranks out a never-ending stream of documents. A fly buzzes about the room. The stuffy employee waves at it with a newspaper and the fly lands on the ceiling. On an assortment of office furniture the clerk climbs up to the fly and swats the insect dead. The squashed thing falls, and we see names flashing by on the printer that all say “Tuttle”. When the fly lands in the printer, suddenly one of the files soiled with insect goo reads “Buttle”. As a result of a swatted fly, a chain of events occurs, which leads to the wrongful capture and execution of a citizen named Buttle. Jill, whose neighbor is the widow Buttle, sets off to report the Ministry’s error and finds herself confronted with absurd forms and unmoved government employees. Inevitably, due to this mishap, Sam sees Jill, a woman whose face he has seen a thousand times in the playground of his mind. Elsewhere is wanted “terrorist” Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), a subversive heating engineer who refuses to work within the reigning Central Services and survives thanks to the fly.
Independent for the intrigue of freelance servicing, adventure keeps Tuttle on the move, and both Central Services and The Ministry view him as a terrorist because he lives his dream. Sam meets the rogue character after ringing Central Services to fix the haywire heating in his apartment. Tuttle intercepts the call and undercuts the licensed servicemen (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O'Connor). Immediately Sam sees Tuttle as a hero for the same reason The Powers That Be view him as a threat: he is free. And though Sam traditionally does everything he can to avoid being suspect or even noticed, he begins to choose abnormal associations: Harry Tuttle and Jill, the latter a hot-blooded trucker, are both suspected terrorists for their refusal to obey the Central Services regime. Neither Sam nor Tuttle nor Jill are “terrorists” in a political sense. How could they be? They are the only dreamers in the film. The Ministry of Information’s propaganda claims Tuttle and those like him (citizens refusing complacency and adherence) engage in terrorism, random bombings and such. Explosions in public places occur and people learn to ignore them as normalcy because they trust their government; and yet, we never see the agitator behind these “attacks”. Are there really terrorists, or does the government cause these explosions to create a sense of chaos and fear to encourage obedience? Given a choice between anarchy and order, most will take order.
The Ministry’s propaganda machine cranks steadily. We see posters broadcasting fear-inducing indoctrinations against independent thought, such as “Suspicion Breeds Confidence”, “Loose Talk Is Noose Talk”, “The Truth Shall Make You Free”, and “Don't suspect a friend, report him”. The endless paperwork records peoples’ activities; scanning devices are everywhere; people are designated by their security level. Big Brothers’ eyes never waver from their fixed position on each and every member of this society. Comically, Big Brother’s dependence on technology sometimes backfires, as with the printers thwarted by a swatted fly. At the Department of Records, Sam’s boss Mr. Kurtzmann stands watch over an ocean of workstations. After Kurtzmann disappears into his office, he hears the echoing sound of hundreds of employees clicking over from their workscreens to a raucous cowboy movie. Kurtzmann rushes back to the door and opens it, hoping to catch everyone in the act, but not before the employees can switch back to their workscreens. With suspicion he shuts the door and the Western snaps back on. Kurtzmann, as a boss, is a joke. He is unsure of himself, though his confidence in the authority of his position is concrete; so when something complicated comes up, Kurtzmann leaves the details to Sam. When the Ministry realizes their error in processing Buttle, Kurtzmann sends Sam to deliver Buttle’s widow a refund check for the arrest and execution costs.
In depicting a world obsessed with formalities, scrutiny, and micro-management, Gilliam could not help but obsess over the details, a trait for which he is infamous. Brazil’s lush production blossoms with substance and contains layers upon layers of texts, both visual and thematic. The aforementioned propaganda never occupies the full frame; posters resembling WWII and Cold War slogans appear only in the background and often out of focus. Many of Brazil’s most fascinating details inhabit the backdrop or reside in the subtle humor and satire from scene to scene. In the interpretational sense, this film requires reading from the viewer, and to see every little activity of every character in every scene requires multiple viewings. Gilliam’s career is filled with pictures harboring details beyond the scope of a normal film. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, two documentary filmmakers, have followed Gilliam’s career closely, making two feature-length behind-the-scenes docs on Terry Gilliam productions. Their first was entitled The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of 12 Monkeys and detailed the making of Gillaim’s biggest moneymaker. Pepe and Fulton show the director’s detail-fixated genius, “The Hamster Factor” from their title referring to a point in 12 Monkeys’ production when Gilliam became more concerned with the behavior of a hamster out of focus in the foreground than with the film’s star, Bruce Willis, in the background. Hours were spent in an attempt to convince a hamster to run in a wheel as Gilliam wanted. Meanwhile, an entire production crew stood idling, waiting for Gilliam to be pleased with a meager detail (which Gilliam admits that no one but him will probably notice). Driven by the smallest specificity, Gilliam never stops chasing his vision.
The character Sam, on the other hand, overlooks the most minuscule details and it leads to his end. To find Jill, his actions, while within the context of the film seem unthreatening and almost passive (for example, taking a promotion to indirectly subvert the system), are dangerous in a merely resultant, roundabout way. Sam does not deliberately undermine authority until he grows frustrated with his inefficient world; his intentions are only to quietly seek out his dreams—to get the hamster to run in the wheel. Yet because of their nature, dreams of Sam’s sort are criminal; only the dreams of an ambitious young executive seem rational in this world. During an obligatory dinner with his plastic-surgery addicted mother (Katherine Helmond), a character who progressively gets younger and younger looking as the film goes on after multiple procedures with her doctor (Jim Broadbent), Sam is pressured to take the promotion to Information Retrieval. He resists, and she asks him, “You must have hopes, wishes, dreams!?” But for Sam to disclose his escape fantasies would be a dangerous admission—to deny this bureaucratic world and acknowledge his resistance against it would mean he somehow has refused to accept his position, refused to conform. Though it subsists only as a symptom of his desire, dreaming is inherently rebellious in Brazil’s world. After all, the government has in effect made nonconformity, thus dreaming, an act of terrorism.
Terry Gilliam’s career follows a similar pattern, outlining a persistent correlation between two master filmmakers and their decisive works. Akin to Citizen Kane, Brazil was the first in an agonizingly long line of troubled productions. After Brazil came the fantastical The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), a production that went exceedingly over budget, endured problems with a pirating and disorganized producer, suffered a corrupt crew and dangerous location shooting, and survived being shut down on several occasions. Minor creative and budgetary disputes gave way to otherwise smoothly run productions of The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), but Gilliam’s most painful blow came during the 2000 production of his unfinished film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, whose collapsed production is detailed in the documentary Lost in La Mancha (directed by Fulton and Pepe). Busy star Johnny Depp had scheduling limitations, and the weather was painfully uncooperative; their exterior locations were situated near an intolerably loud NATO base; the film’s Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, suffered a herniated disc; the European-funded budget was drastically cut—all of this in the course of a few weeks, making the shoot an economic impossibility. Production was cancelled and the picture was never made. Lost in La Mancha illustrates how the stigma attached to Gilliam is, in some cases, unjust, as he cannot be blamed for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’s bad luck setbacks.
Gilliam’s production troubles did not end there; they followed him like a curse. After the Don Quixote failure, Gilliam moved on to direct The Brothers Grimm (2005). With a massive $80 million budget, producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein refused Gilliam regular freedoms and curbed his casting choices, creative flourishes (including a prosthetic nose for star Matt Damon), certain special FX, and final cut. Eventually, Gilliam left the picture before post-production finished to freely film Tideland (2005), a critical failure and otherwise bizarre film. He returned to The Brothers Grimm to lazily complete post-production, no longer caring about the completed product (which is clear upon viewing). Years passed until he was able to begin making The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), a film which, like Brazil, overcame a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In the middle of his shoot, star Health Ledger tragically died, leaving Gilliam and co-writer McKeown to rewrite their script and allow other actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law) to film scenes as the various personalities of Ledger’s character. Though not the film Gilliam intended to make, it remains a deeply personal testament to the director’s innovation and ongoing endurance through years of uneasy filmmaking.
Still, Brazil represents the ultimate example of Gilliam fighting The System and coming out with his original vision intact. In each of the aforesaid completed films, the director sacrificed something, be it a piece of his vision or himself, to release a product not entirely what he wanted. With Brazil, Gilliam’s fight represents a Citizen Kane-type victory; the film succeeded, untouched by the studio, regardless of the attempted tampering, restructuring, and censoring of its message and length. The dream prevailed. This triumph of dreams over reality is a reoccurring theme in the films of Terry Gilliam, Brazil being the second picture in what he has often referred to as his “Dream Trilogy”, a free grouping of Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Each film’s main character struggles to reconcile the importance of dreams over hard everyday realities. In Time Bandits, a child escapes from his parents’ house, rotten with technology, into the adventuresome possibilities of history; in Brazil, a middle-aged man escapes reality by way of dreams, substantiates them in reality, and then finds the two cannot coexist; in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, an elderly romantic finds his tall tales are too imaginative and unrealistic for the Age of Reason. In each film, the dreamer is overwhelmed by close-mindedness, astute rationality, and apathetic dogmatism—in other words, reality.
Like many of Gilliam's works, Brazil is a dramatic tragedy: the protagonist loses his battle. Gilliam illustrates the sad truth that to dream of bringing down or breaking free of The System is hopeless; he even goes so far as to affirm that dreaming begets punishment. Certainly in Gilliam’s experience this must be true. A reality of life is that though we fight unjust structures of authority, they usually win. While a cynical position, it is more often than not the truth. Gilliam’s feelings in 1985 are perfectly exemplified through an unbelievably detailed production and incomparable vision, and a curious reflectivity between real life and fantasy. The production’s villainesque studio executive is tantamount to the film’s Ministry of Information, while Sam Lowry reflects Gilliam’s own quixotic, self-destructive nature. The Citizen Kane of the latter twentieth century, Brazil is the ultimate in fatalistic film. It challenges set parameters and the organization built up to keep the individual down. In that, it exposes The System's faults through wry humor, expressive visuals, and defiant social commentary. Here began Gilliam’s continued personal and professional hardships in filming his dreams, and through characters like Sam Lowry, he continues his pursuits in filmmaking to rebel against any stoic acceptance of dispassion and bureaucracy; his battle is one of imagination, possibility, and hope. The film itself is ironically, and painfully, more realistic: Brazil understands the need for escape when suppressed by the world's monotony, but it also acknowledges the despair of dreamy ideals. They are, after all, ideals, and by definition unreachable.
Gilliam, Terry. Edited by Ian Christie. Gilliam on Gilliam. London; New York: Faber and Faber, c1999.
Mathews, Jack. The Battle of Brazil: The Nightmare Fantasy Making of the Movie. New York: Applause; Milwaukee, WI: Distributed by Hal Leonard Corp., 1998.
Yule, Andrew. Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga. New York, NY: Applause Books, c1991.