Brazil, by Terry Gilliam

Monty Python and the Department of Homeland Insecurity.

Released in 1985, it presaged the dysfunctional surveillance society we are entering. A blend of 1984 and Brave New World with a side of the Marx Brothers. A future where nothing works, everything is monitored and most are distracted with mindless consumerism. Two of the Monty Python comedy troupe members are part of Brazil: Terry Gilliam was the director and Michael Palin plays the torturer at the Ministry of Information Retrieval. Gilliam had to battle the studio to get them to release his film because it did not have a stereotypical "happy ending" and the satire of bureaucracy made the studio bureaucrats uncomfortable.

On 9/11, a lot of USA people said they thought the attacks looked like a Hollywood disaster movie. Brazil was the movie I thought of that morning, when I saw the unforgettable images and immediately thought "here comes the police state."
Welcome to Brazil!
Terry Gilliam, standing on the shoulders of Orwell, showed us the America of 2004 almost 20 years ago.

by James Heflin - November 11, 2004

Terry Gilliam's 1985 black comedy Brazil is set at "8:49 p.m., somewhere in the 20th century." Brazil is full of the trappings of a culture that never exactly existed but is still familiar, a ravaged, blackened environment, packed with clunky typewriter/computer consoles, strange cars, and the neon-lit streets of a futuristic film noir. This is a decidedly British dystopia, its citizens the unassuming, go along to get along sorts Americans frequently think Brits to be. (Gilliam, though American himself, was a member of British comedy troupe Monty Python.)

Brazil opens with a televised conversation between a spokesman of the "Ministry of Information" and a journalist who pitches softball questions and receives answers which are either irrelevant or just plain ignorant. The world of Brazil is beset by horrific acts of terrorism, and the Ministry of Information spokesman understands why: "bad sportsmanship." The spokesman further claims that progress has been made against the terrorists, and delivers a stunner when it's pointed out that attacks have been going on for 13 years: "beginner's luck."

Of course, no one seems to notice this total disconnect or mind the ineptitude.

All that terrorism calls for intrusive security, but the security machines all seem like cobbled-together junk, and their cheap construction and amusing noises don't appear to hinder any acts of terrorism. When the bombings inevitably occur, the general rule is to ignore the blood, fire and bodies. In a restaurant scene, bombing victims stagger helplessly in the background until a screen is put in place so that the other diners can eat in peace. The shocked victims haunt the dreams of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lower-level bureaucrat who wants a better life.

Undergirding Brazil 's ineffectual war on terrorism is a system that keeps its citizens docile through a combination of Kafka-esque bureaucratic bumbling and a police presence of inhuman efficiency. When citizens act up (or become the victims of hapless bureaucracy), they are removed to detention, where they are systematically tortured. They are, inevitably, never heard from again.

Ron Suskind reported in the New York Times Magazine that in 2002, after he published an article unfriendly to former Bush communications director Karen Hughes in Esquire, he was summoned to a meeting with a senior Bush advisor, who told Suskind he was "in what we call the reality-based community," people "who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Those who, like the Brits of Brazil , have grown incapable of seeing and believing the reality of their president's easily verifiable dishonesty and small-mindedness, those who refuse to see that military action creates more terrorism, that unprecedented national debt is bad, that killing Iraqis harms our security more than gay marriage, have spoken. They are apparently a narrow majority. And so, "reality-based" voters might be tempted to say, they deserve to watch as their personal economic struggles get worse, as their kids enter combat to satisfy a willfully ignorant man's desires.

But there is an unavoidable difficulty with what these voters who are not reality-based have wrought. Terrorists inhabit reality. And though homegrown terrorism has struck elsewhere, members of the reality-based community primarily reside in the population centers that are, apparently, tempting targets to Islamic fundamentalists. Reality-based citizens are more often the ones who travel abroad, who deliberately seek out cultural exchange and consider themselves global citizens. The reality-based are the ones more often in foreign places and therefore in the cross-hairs. The voters who have accepted the fantasy of George W. Bush's simplified world endanger everyone. Perhaps blue voters can be forgiven for being angry about the red votes facilitating forced entry into a world so horribly and precisely like Gilliam's Brazil.

At some points, it's tempting to think Gilliam managed a look 20 years into the future when he made Brazil , though that uncanny effect more likely proves that the methods and results of power abuse are variations on an eternal theme. Now that much of America is content in the notion that our government is always out for the greater good despite overwhelming evidence of deceit and abuse at the highest levels, Brazil deserves a second look. Its relevance has only grown, and it's got the advantage of not being as overused as Orwell.

It also reveals a frightening change in the perception of what it means to be American.

Into Brazil 's world of hapless Brits, overcome by paperwork and constant fear, blasts an American on a zip line, Harry Tuttle. Robert de Niro is an American in the way we've always preferred to see ourselves, a no-nonsense, fearless hero who, rather than endlessly talking and planning, simply and effectively does what he sets out to do. Sam Lowry's air conditioner has gone out in the midst of a terrible heat wave, and the recording at the government's Central Services ("this has not been a recording," it says) is no help. Tuttle is a freelance repairman, complete with balaclava and pistol, who refuses to put up with all the paperwork and hassle. He gets things done, and refuses to sit idly waiting.

Tuttle is the kind of American hero who hopped the ocean to help the French and the British push the Boche back from the trenches of the Western Front, who saddled up once more when the Boche went Nazi. The hand-wringing Europeans, the story always goes, got their world set aright for them, and we Americans retreated back to our split-level ranches and good, clean happiness, safe in the notion of ourselves as hardy, heroic frontiersmen.

Brazil 's protagonist also falls hard for the woman who inhabits his dreams (Jill Layton, played by Kim Greist), a fragile, astonishing beauty, who, when he meets her in reality, turns out to be a truck-driving, self-sufficient and not at all fragile woman. When he lets slip a little of his dreamlife, she kicks him right out of her moving truck with both her combat-booted feet. He is no less smitten when he realizes that she is dangerous, although he is deathly afraid that she might, with all that danger, turn out to be one of the terrorists who are blowing up innocent dinner patrons and shoppers. She too is, of course, American.

The deciding of this election in favor of George W. Bush demolishes the stereotypes that Gilliam played with. Red America, faced with the arrival of a reality-based Harry Tuttle promising to win the day with old-fashioned American fearlessness, has slammed the door in his face. The majority of America has become the docile crowd. Frightened Bush fantasists don't give a damn about what those in the reality-based community think or believe, even when the reality-based are merely reporting reality instead of fantasy; most still believe Saddam was behind Sept. 11. But now their actions directly increase the danger of retaliation upon those who inhabit reality.

It's not safe to expect anyone outside the reality-based community to respond to reality. If the fantasists bother to read these words, they will likely find a label with which to safely dismiss them -- "northeastern liberal elitism" should serve (though I like my grits with cheese and come from a family including truck drivers, nurses, secretaries and cafeteria workers).

The reality-based habit of carefully honing arguments and backing them up with facts might be just as effective if the results were published in Finnish.

If the fantasists somehow trade docility for awareness, there may be hope. Holding one's breath is not recommended. If things remain as they are, it seems likely that another horrific attack will eventually happen. How can it not, when Bush's military aggression is every day furthering the policies that exacerbate terrorism? And if terrorists strike again, the fantasists will call for sinking further into Brazil, for more aggression, fewer civil rights, and unquestioning devotion to George W. Bush. The grim cycle will continue.

The reality-based could take the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach and move to the vastness of red America, embrace Wal-Mart, fundamentalism and Fox News. It seems unlikely. There is always emigration, but there is something deep in most Americans which fights against it. The reality-based are Americans too, after all, just as in love with the fading promise of this country and its former devotion to eyes-wide-open democracy.

How does one inject reason and reality into a fantasy-inspired cycle of violence which always results in an iron Republican grip on power? If they resist Bush's fantasy, will the organizations of the left be gradually and deliberately transformed by the label "extremist" slowly morphing to mean "terrorist?"

Brazil's Lowry, after bucking the bureaucracy and emulating the can-do attitude of Harry Tuttle, finds himself detained, at the mercy of his fearful fellow citizens. He is left no out but a blissful insanity, his own fantasy in which Harry Tuttle's warriors rappel to his rescue.

This is a bleak moment in our history, a moment when our nation will inherit or refuse our birthright. It's too bad that half of this country hears only the fiddle, and does not see the flames licking at the foundations of the Forum. But once it's gone to ash, at least, they can say, gay people couldn't get married.

BRAZIL (Movie, 1985) Frequently Asked Questions v1.3

1. I didn't understand the film at all. What's it all about?
2. Why were problems with BRAZIL's release in America?
3. How many versions of BRAZIL have been released? What are the
differences between them?
4. How do I get the version I want to see on laserdisc?
5. What is the title BRAZIL supposed to mean?
6. How does BRAZIL fit in with Gilliam's other movies?
7. What are the lyrics to the song _Brazil_? Is a soundtrack available?
8. The sets are stunning. Where were they filmed?
9. What do all the signs say?
10. What is Information Retrieval Charging?
11. What does the singing telegram girl sing?
12. Miscellaneous questions, answers and observations.
13. Where can I get more information about BRAZIL?
14. Notable Quotes.


1. I didn't understand the film at all. What's it all about?

BRAZIL is a film rich in depth -- the plot does not focus on just one subject, but instead contains many different themes which weave together. The film follows the character of Sam Lowry, a clerk in the records department of a huge government bureaucracy, the Ministry of Information. Sam's perception of the world alternates between being trapped as a mere "cog in the machine" in a grim world of paperwork, and escaping from his grim existence by becoming a hero in his own elaborate dreams. His life and these dreams begin to merge together...his dreams become more realized as his life tears apart. Eventually, the government imprisons him, finding him guilty of none other than "wasting the Ministry's time and paper" after Sam embarks on a messy pursuit of the girl he sees in both his dreams and in real life -- who was unrightly wanted by the Ministry as a suspected terrorist.

Still don't get it? You probably won't, not until you've seen the film multiple times. The structure of BRAZIL often uses peripheral devices: interviews heard in the background, lines of conversation running over action and posters seen on walls, to give the viewer cues as to what's going on in the film. It seems nearly impossible that a single viewing of BRAZIL could possibly supply the viewer with all of the information needed to fully digest what's happening in the film.

BRAZIL is a film which rolls up many of the problems of the century into one big plot: industrialization, terrorism, government control and bureaucracy (from both capitalist and socialized countries), technology gone wrong, inept repair people, plastic surgery, love, and even modern filmmaking. Especially love.

Gilliam has claimed that the film is about the fear of love: the consequences of the Sam Lowry character pursuing his dream girl are steep. However, if the film can be said to focus on a single topic, it would have to be described as the dehumanizing effect of technology and bureaucracy on today's society -- although the film is much more than that. In the world of BRAZIL, set "8:49 p.m., somewhere in the 20th century", fantasy is the only escape, and the happy ending is that of a man going insane. The film certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea, shifting abruptly from comedy to despair, something Gilliam has described in interviews as cinematic rape. Gilliam approaches the style of the film with his trademark wit and stunning visuals, both honed during his years as the animator for _Monty Python's Flying Circus_ and during the production of his film _Time Bandits_.

Words from Gilliam himself, part of an interview for The South Bank Show, filmed 6/29/91:
"BRAZIL was a film that sat around for some years, I mean like 10 years I'd been sort of thinking about this thing. I mean on a very simple level it's just its just very cathartic for me. It's all about my own frustrations and my seeming inability to achieve what I wanted to achieve and my inability to affect a system that is clearly wrong. The fears of BRAZIL are not so much that the world is spinning out of control because of the system, because the system is us. What BRAZIL is really about is that the system isn't great leaders, great machinating people controlling it all. It's each person performing their job as one little cog in this thing and Sam chooses to stay a little cog and ultimately he pays the price for that.

"Now on the other hand I also felt that there's the ideal that if we all do our bit the world will become better. Then there's the pessimistic side that says enough of this 'do our bit, ain't gonna make a blind bit of difference as we're all gunna, lemming like, go over the abyss'. And so then there was 'how do you escape from that world?' and Sam escapes by going insane. I actually started this film with that idea of 'can one make a film where the happy ending is a man going insane?'"

Keep in mind, however, that Gilliam has been quoted as saying:

"Because I dislike being quoted I lie almost constantly when talking about my work."


#51: Brazil


The most horrifying character in Brazil, however, is also the best family man in the movie, filled with bonhomie and good intentions. This is Michael Palin, playing Sam's oldest friend, Jack Lint. He has a beautiful wife and adorable triplet daughters. He also works for the Department of Information Retrieval, on the top floors of the Ministry of Information, where he tortures people to death for a living. It doesn't seem to bother him much.

You don't get the impression that Kurtzmann or Spoor or Dowser think too much about what they do for a living. Lint's different; he believes he's fighting the good fight. "Our job is to trace the connections and reveal them," he tells Sam. But Jack can't afford to draw any connections between what he does for a living and the kind of person he imagines himself to be, and his cognitive dissonance is the moral abyss at the center of the movie. A system like the Ministry of Information requires thousands of Jack Lints, each more interested in their daughter's latest exploits than the bloody handprints on their shirts. Casting Michael Palin in this role was a brilliant move on Gilliam's part—not only is Palin naturally affable, but the audience has been coached by Palin's work with Monty Python to expect him to be funny.

Which is not to say Brazil isn't funny, but it's darker than a black comedy. Call it a black hole comedy; no light escapes.

Brazil and Bush’s War on Terror
by Robert Blumen

We are living in Brazil. The future as foretold by Terry Gilliam’s 1985 rich and multi-layered film masterpiece Brazil is upon us. First released fifteen years ago, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was astonishingly accurate in forecasting political trends. In a previous essay, I examined the film as a critique of socialist central planning. In this piece, I will discuss how Brazil portends Bush’s War on Terror.

The world of Brazil shows a totalitarian society in which freedom has been forfeited for a false promise of protection from terrorist attacks. Gilliam shows how the threat of terrorism is manipulated by the state as a means of political control over the population. The threat of terror is created by the internal security police in order to generate public acceptance of totalitarian police powers.

Gilliam’s exposition raises some important questions: Is the terror created by the power of the state in the alleged pursuit of terrorism worse than the terrorism itself? And are they really any different?

The ministers of state in Brazil have succeeded in creating a society organized around a continuous response to the threat of terrorism. Random bombings occur regularly. The protagonist Sam and his mother must go through a security check in order to enter a restaurant. And then during their meal a large explosion blows out the back of the dining room; they continue eating while bodies are dragged away.

As in modern America, there is some doubt about whether Brazil’s "War on Terrorism" is really working. At the opening of the film Minister Helpmann, the Deputy Minister of information (the internal security agency), appears on TV immediately after a bombing takes place:

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that the government is winning the battle against terrorists?
HELPMANN: Oh yes. Our morale is much higher than theirs, we're fielding all their strokes, running a lot of them out, and pretty consistently knocking them for six. I'd say they're nearly out of the game.
INTERVIEWER: But the bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year.
HELPMANN: Beginner's luck.

Now in the US, we are told by the Bush administration that the war on terrorism will become a more or less permanent state of affairs.

U.S. war may last decades
Military pushed to think broadly
WASHINGTON – The U.S. war on terrorism may rage for decades and has forced Pentagon strategists to think more broadly than they've had to since World War II, a top military official said Sunday.
"The fact that it could last several years, or many years, or maybe our lifetimes would not surprise me," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday on ABC's This Week.

The film has been reissued on DVD with commentary by the director in which he states that it was his intention to convey that there were so many government plants, double agents, agents provocateurs, moles, infiltrators, etc. that at some point even the government did not know for sure whether there were any real terrorists or whether all of the terror was fabricated by the police as part of their anti-terror campaign. 

In a conversation between Sam and Ministry of Information office Jack Lint, Lint reveals how he – as a key member of the internal security department – understands the events that are taking place:

SAM: You don't really think Tuttle and the girl are in league?
JACK: I do. Goodbye.
SAM: It could all be coincidental.
JACK: There are no coincidences, Sam. Everything's connected, all along the line. Cause and effect. That's the beauty of it. Our job is to trace the connections and reveal them. This whole Buttle/Tuttle confusion was obviously planned from the inside.

As the audience of the film, we know that the Tuttle/Buttle confusion was caused by a computer error within the department, and that "the girl" (Jill Layton) became involved as a concerned citizen trying to investigate a wrongful arrest. The irony here is that a random chain of events kicked off by the Ministry’s own error is seen from inside ministry as further evidence of a terrorist conspiracy.

Revisionist historians have suggested that many wars and other events are staged or at least allowed to happen and then used by the government to manipulate public opinion in the direction that they want it to go. Michael Ruppert has provided voluminous research suggesting that the US intelligence agencies had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks and chose to allow them to occur, much the way that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor and did not prevent it. And there is the tradition of US enemies having once been funded by US intelligence agencies.

Bin Laden comes home to roost
His CIA ties are only the beginning of a woeful story
By Michael Moran
NEW YORK, Aug. 24, 1998 – At the CIA, it happens often enough to have a code name: Blowback. Simply defined, this is the term that describes an agent, an operative or an operation that has turned on its creators. Osama bin Laden, our new public enemy Number 1, is the personification of blowback. And the fact that he is viewed as a hero by millions in the Islamic world proves again the old adage: Reap what you sow.
What the CIA bio conveniently fails to specify (in its unclassified form, at least) is that the MAK was nurtured by Pakistan’s state security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, the CIA’s primary conduit for conducting the covert war against Moscow’s occupation.
Yet the CIA, concerned about the factionalism of Afghanistan made famous by Rudyard Kipling, found that Arab zealots who flocked to aid the Afghans were easier to "read" than the rivalry-ridden natives. While the Arab volunteers might well prove troublesome later, the agency reasoned, they at least were one-dimensionally anti-Soviet for now. So bin Laden, along with a small group of Islamic militants from Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian refugee camps all over the Middle East, became the "reliable" partners of the CIA in its war against Moscow.

Brazil shows a world of meek and helpless people, devoid of any artistic or aesthetic pleasure. There are two heroes in the film: Tuttle, the renegade heating repair engineer, and Jill Layton, a woman who takes it upon herself to fight the wrongful arrest of her neighbor’s husband. The protagonist, Sam, is a happy cog in the great machine, content to waste away his life shuffling papers within a vast bureaucracy.

Social life is dominated by suspicion and fear. And who is behind this?

INTERVIEWER: Deputy minister, what do you believe is behind this recent increase in terrorist bombings?
HELPMANN: Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seems to have forgotten certain good old fashioned virtues. They just can't stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people would just play the game, they’d get a lot more out of life.

Compare this to President Bush's Address on Terrorism to Congress:

Americans are asking, ''Why do they hate us?''
They hate what they see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

The utter irony of this is that Bush and Helpmann depict terrorism as primarily a sort of arrested emotional development by those who did not learn in grade school to be good losers. The little boy who took his ball and went home became a terrorist when he grew up. This rhetorical tactic forestalls any inquiry into the religious or political movements that the terrorists might be seeking to advance or whether they have any real case against the American foreign policy. An irony here is that the moral virtue claimed by both Bush and Helpmann is undermined by their own terror game.

The use of propaganda is another tactic used by totalitarian regimes to generate support for their program. In Brazil as in Orwell's 1984, this takes the form of euphemisms.

KURTZMAN: I've tried that! Population Census have got him down as dormanted, the Central Collective Storehouse computer has got him down as deleted, and the Information Retrieval have got him down as inoperative, Security has him down as excised, Admin have him down as completed.
SAM: Hang on…he’s dead.

Besides being used to hide unpleasant meanings, euphemisms are also used to portray falsehood as truth. The sinister internal security division is darkly named the Ministry of Information Retrieval. They "retrieve" information from citizens by torture. In a visual motif reminiscent of Soviet era propaganda, posters with banal slogans appear on buildings and in offices. In case you can’t read them all as they go by during the film, I have copied them from the excellent Brazil FAQ:

• "Be Safe: Be Suspicious"
• "Suspicion Breeds Confidence"
• "Trust in haste, Regret at leisure"
• "Don't suspect a friend, report him"
• "Who can you trust?"

This is not so different from modern America. In case some American suspects a friend of theirs, Bush will make it possible for you to report him:

Operation TIPS Trips Up?
August 8, 2002
(CBS) In the aftermath of Sept. 11, President Bush laid groundwork for "Operation TIPS," a program which would organize a volunteer army of citizen lookouts to report "suspicious" activities to the federal government.
Under "Operation TIPS," transportation workers, utility crews and letter carriers could sign up to snoop on members of their communities. Attorney General Ashcroft argued such vigilance could thwart terrorists, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports.
"You have the ability of people who have a regular perception, who understand what's out of order here, what's different here, and maybe something needs to be looked into," Ashcroft said.

The plot of Brazil is driven by a series of accounting errors that are initiated when the Ministry of Information arrests and tortures the wrong man. The arrest scene is a terrifying exhibition of police state tactics: several black-garbed troopers simultaneously burst through the walls and doors of the Buttle’s apartment. They are followed a paper-pushing official who reads the banal statement of arrest to Mr. Buttle as he is about to be dragged off in a canvas sack and tortured to death:

OFFICIAL: I hereby inform you under powers entrusted to me under Section 47, Paragraph 7 of Council Order Number 438476, that Mr Buttle, Archibald, residing at 412 North Tower, Shangri La Towers, has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain enquiries…

The accounting problems stem from the wrongful arrest of Mr. Buttle because they charge torture victims for the cost of their own torture. These charges are necessary for efficiency, according to the Deputy Minister.1

INTERVIEWER: And the cost of it [i.e. the Ministry’s campaign] all, Deputy Minister? Seven percent of the gross national product…
HELPMANN: I understand this concern on behalf of the taxpayers. People want value for money. And that’s why we always insist on the principle of Information Retrieval Charges. It's absolutely right and fair that those found guilty should pay for their periods of detention and the Information Retrieval Procedures used in their interrogation.

Later, when the Sam is arrested for a long list of crimes and brought back to Information Retrieval for processing, the Ministry even offers him a consumer financing plan to that they provide to help torture victims bear the cost:

OFFICIAL C: Now, either you plead guilty to say, seven or eight of these charges, which'll bring the costs down to within your reach, or you can borrow a sum to be negotiated, from us, at very competitive rates.
OFFICIAL D: We can offer you something at say, eleven and a half per cent, over thirty years. But you will have to buy insurance to qualify for his scheme.

This type of plan brings to mind Paul Craig Roberts’ critique of current US judicial proceedings in which people are charged with a long list of related offences for a single crime then encouraged to plea bargain by pleading guilty to only one of them. Also, compare Sam’s travails to a trial balloon that was floated by the Bush administration:

Officials consider tapping Iraqi oil to pay war costs
Some in Bush administration consider oil funds to be 'spoils of war'
WASHINGTON – Bush administration officials are seriously considering proposals that the United States tap Iraq's oil to help pay the cost of a military occupation, a move that likely would prove highly inflammatory in an Arab world already suspicious of U.S. motives.

In another amazing parallel, the interior spaces of the rooms in Brazil are overrun with ugly meandering heating ducts. And as US citizens we are told to stock up on duct tape.

How could a film produced fifteen years ago have foreseen these developments in such remarkable detail? Perhaps because they are not new: they are recurring patterns in the way that states use and manufacture the threat of warfare in order to control their own citizens. State power tends to grow during wars because citizens become more willing to trade liberty for the security that states are willing to promise them. But when a war ends, the pendulum swings back at least partially. So why not manufacture a permanent state of war during which freedoms can be indefinitely suspended? Gilliam was writing history as well as foretelling the future. By creatively retelling the past as a work of fiction about the future, he exposes the totalitarian impulse.

1. My own thoughts on this were augmented by points made in the FAQ, part 9.

Favorite Brazil Sites
1. FAQ.
2. Script.
3. Buy the new DVD release featuring a documentary about the film and Gilliam’s commentary.

May 28, 2003
Robert Blumen (send him mail) is an independent software consultant based in San Francisco.
Copyright © 2003



Eric Manch
October 2, 1998
Brazil and the Obscene Technocracy: "We're all in this together!"

Brazil is a nightmarish film. Granted, it is also quite humorous, and also granted, it is not nightmarish in the slasher vein, but the ways in which this film reflects on our reality are especially immediate to us. Of those who have commented on the film, many have pointed to the dual masterworks of dystopian fiction produced earlier this century, 1984 and Brave New World. Many have even labeled the film "Kafkaesque", citing the mountains of filing cabinets and byzantine power structure of the Ministry of Information as reminiscent of the nightmares of the troubled Czech.

Such comparisons, though valid, do not cut to the root of the terror of Brazil, nor do they aid us in explaining it. For Brazil is also the story of a hero of sorts, of Sam Lowry's brave yet futile rebellion against society through dreams. In order to better understand this rebellion, however, it is necessary to diagnose the nature of this malevolent force Sam must confront, so that its significance may be understood. It is my view, then, that the film is better understood as Sam Lowry's personal struggle against banality, rather than as a stern warning against totalitarian society. Such will be the objective of this essay: to examine the major themes of the film while making an effort to contextualize them with the aid of various criticism.{1}

The society of Brazil (I hesitate to identify it as a "futuristic" society, since the opening credits merely tell us the story is located "somewhere in the 20th century") is completely entangled in a web of information. The first image we see is that of a television in a shop window. The television is playing an advertisement with a cheery jingle for Central Services, the ubiquitous public works company of the film (and one of Lowry's major adversaries). Immediately after the opening jingle and duct advertisement the shop window explodes, over which the title of the film is superimposed in bright, stylized neon. Despite the explosion, the television continues to function, ironically broadcasting an interview with a government official regrading recent terrorist bombings. This kind of irony is essential to understanding the society macrocosm of Brazil. As later events reveal, the government has complicity in these terrorist bombings, perhaps even planning them itself as a means of controlling the public. The bombings do not stop the government from functioning, but have instead become an accepted part of the "process" of government. When a bomb goes off in the middle of the restaurant, the string quartet resumes after a second or two and a squad of waiters arrive at Sam's table to place shades in front of the chaotic aftermath, so the unsightly victims do not disturb their meal.

What is even more interesting is the way the bombings are integrated, with the aid of the Ministry of Information, into a kind of self-fulfilling economic cycle thanks to a process called "Information Retrieval Charging." Terrorist suspects (or "clients," as they are euphemistically called by the Ministry) are brought into Information Retrieval (the Ministry's torture division) and are then charged against their bank accounts for the procedures used in their interrogation. Viewed as little more than commerical drones by their government, citizens begin to view each other the same way. We know that the events of the film take place during Christmas, but due to the vague suppositions of time and place that are made, we might as well assume that it is always Christmastime in the world of Brazil. People, upon greeting each other, exchange meaningless gifts with one another, merely for the sake of performing the act of gift-giving. Similarly, the guests at the restaurant are content eating multi-colored, ersatz pigslop because the color pictures accompanying their meal assure them that they are eating quality food.

This is a society saturated entirely by information, to the point where information takes on a kind of sentience absolving everyone of all personal responsibility. The words to the jingle ("Central Services, we do the work, you do the pleasure") suggest the caretaker posture of the government. We see further evidence of this in the Ministry of Information propaganda posters, with slogans such as "Help the M.O.I. Help You" and the paradoxical "Suspicion Breeds Confidence." The film's crucial plot point, the wrongful arrest and interrogation of Buttle the shoe-repair operative, exemplifies this notion. When Sam accuses Jack Lint of unjustly interrogating and killing Buttle, he explains that since the name Buttle was given to him as Tuttle, he unquestionably was justified in interrogating Buttle. The information must be infallible, he rations, so the error in collecting the information must lie with someone else. He merely expected, as would any other person in his position, that his information was absolutely correct because this society has bred him to believe that information (and those who manipulate it) are infallible. And so the chain of accusations continues until no responsible party can be found.

Viewed on the individual level, then, the society of Brazil is incomprehensible. Despite his repeated attempts to navigate the bureaucracy, to manipulate it to his own ends, Sam ultimately fails, and is forced into the ultimate retreat of schizophrenia. Sam's attempts to fight the system take two different forms. First, he attempts to advance his own goals (finding the identity of Jill Leyton and then trying to save her life) with his own cunning, mostly unsuccessfully. In the end, Sam cannot hope to win on their court; the infinite twists and turns of the Ministry's power structure are an impregnable barrier to any individual. So he takes the battle to his own mind in an oversimplified, allegorical contest between himself as a winged superhero and the technocracy as a gigantic metallic samurai. Here, and only here, is the conflict a tangible one. Events in the real world spur his fantasies; Archibald "Harry" Tuttle, the renegade heating repairman who subverts the Central Services bureaucracy, inspires him to act on his revolutionary instincts. He is the one of the few true "friends" that Sam develops in the film, one with whom he shares complicity in his fantastic rebellion against the technocracy.

Though Sam's dream sequences, we gain insight into his essentially childlike character, one that tends toward regression and romantic simplification. One need not mention Sam's embittered relationship with his manipulative mother, and how it limits his freedom to do as he likes. Here we have uncovered one of the major motifs of the film, the one that connects the discontinuous dream sequences with the action surrounding the film: the struggle to make sense of one's absurd environment. Another irony: the fantastic worlds conjured by Sam in his struggle against the technocracy are more ordered and less absurd than his reality. The conflict in these allegorical scenes is always clear. In contrast, the technology-dominated world depicted in the "real" world of Brazil is one of perpetual abstraction. The infinite tangle of interrelated mechanisms, both bureaucratic and mechanical, insures that no one has the slightest idea how anything works. Also, despite the predominance of invisible information in this society, the technology employed seems to be of a decidedly backward nature. Images that harken back to the Industrial Revolution figure prominently in the films visuals, from the complicated heating ducts to the huge, pollution-belching factories to the mail tubes that criss-cross the floors of Information Retrieval. The computers that are depicted appear little more than glorified typewriters with large glass screens attached. These machines, and others, are loud and capricious; Sam's phone emits a particularly gruesome ring. In interviews, Gilliam has noted his fondness for the Industrial Revolution because its components are easier to understand.{2} Here again, we notice a kind of irony in these great machines. Though they are ostensibly top-of-the-line technology (or so we are led to believe) we are simultaneously aware of their bizarre appearance; surely, we think to ourselves, such strange devices could have no practical purpose, let alone function. And in most cases, they don't. Hence the privileged irony we perceive when viewing Brazil. Gilliam's visual choice has permitted us insight into this peculiar universe, telling us that despite all the technological pretenses of the technocracy, it still can't invent a better way to make toast.

In a sense, Brazil might even be called a "coming of age" movie of sorts, in the respect that Sam spends the greater part of the film learning to interact with his environment. Except in this case, the protagonist does not grow up or mature, but ends up a vegetable in an interrogation chamber. So the film ends with Sam in his chair, oblivious to physical reality, having retreated to the safety of his own mind. We see the walls of the dome-shaped interrogation chamber fade away as they are replaced by a bright blue cloud-filled sky, mirroring the cloud-filled opening of the film. A reprise follows of Brazil, the film's theme song, this time set to a happy samba beat. Has Sam achieved final victory? In the context of the film and the struggles of his characters, he has. For not only is the major conflict of Brazil one of understanding, but of an attempt to escape the limits of the corporeal. Kathleen Woodward makes note of this in her essay "From Virtual Cyborgs to Biological Time Bombs: Technocriticism and the Material Body" and expands upon it to include Mrs. Lowry: "In Brazil both the son and the mother want to escape the limits of the body. Both hope that technology will enable them to do so."{3} Sam's attempt to escape from his captors is an imaginary one. Just as Jack Lint prepares to lobotomize Sam, Harry Tuttle shoots Lint in the head and drops into the room (with shades of the Odessa sequence in Eisenstein's Potemkin) with his fellow renegade heating repairmen. What follows is a fantastically daring rescue attempt, one that seems too good to be true--and it is, as we discover when the bodies of Lint and Mr. Helpmann appear in front of the idyllic countryside to which Sam has escaped, destroying the fantasy and returning us to the real. Sam, however, remains undaunted--his escape from his body complete through dreams. By contrast, Sam's mother Ida seeks escape from her body through technology--or more precisely, plastic surgery. Though her looks improve greatly, her friend Mrs. Terrain is not so lucky: her complications multiply until her body is nothing more than a revolting, gelatinous mass of pink flesh and bone. In this society, the relief afforded by technology is at best only temporary (another plastic surgeon warns that in six months, Ida will "look like Grandma Moses") and at worst, lethal.

Tangential to this mode of escapism is the idea of love. Both Sam and Ida Lowry are fundamentally dissatisfied with where they are, and both pursue love in some form or another to relieve themselves--Ida, who is getting on in years, seeks attention, and Sam merely seeks the fulfillment of his fantasies. When Sam finally discovers the woman (literally) of his dreams, Jill Leyton, an interesting convergence occurs. Jill represents the point at which the fantasy life and real life of Sam Lowry intersect. Even when she does appear, it seems that she is in another realm; when Sam seeks her for the first time at the metal detector, Jack says to Sam, "You look like you've seen a ghost." From the moment Jill enters Sam's life, his attitude changes. Suddenly he becomes intent on making his dreams come to life. Of course, dreams are meant to remain dreams, and Sam soon finds the technocracy turning against him, in the same way it turned against Mrs. Terrain. In Brazil, there is no true escape, and no wishes are ever fulfilled--at least, not without consequences. The purest way to go is through your own mind--but even that has its drawbacks, depending upon your point of view.

Another facet of the film not to be ignored, one that contributes to both aspects previously mentioned, is its rampant consumerism. Consumption is the rule in Brazil society, even integral and perhaps even indistinguishable from the state itself. Even such mundane items as ducts are glorified in Central Services advertisements. Televisions are omnipresent; whenever the supervisor at the Bureau of Records turns away, the workers stop their work and tune in. It is no accident that the story takes place at "Christmastime", the most commercial time of year. Gift-giving thus becomes a dry performative act, a mere social convention devoid of real meaning. Even religion melds neatly with consumerism, as exemplified by the "Consumers for Christ" who march by in one scene. In this media-saturated world of neon Santa Clauses and children with credit cards, where is the sincerity? Where is the real? Gilliam plays a number of visual tricks to play with this notion. As Jill and Sam drive away in the truck, the camera zooms out from a highway walled in with billboards to reveal a barren, pockmarked, lifeless landscape. The means of communication have taken over, there is nothing to see but the message. In another humorous sequence, we see an idyllic red house with a white fence. A man in a radiation suit opens the front door and waves to the camera. Then a crane lifts up the house, revealing a hideous dark factory. In yet another sequence, while Sam is driving to the widowed Mrs. Buttle's house to deliver the reimbursement check, the camera tracks forward into a futuristic looking city lined with what appear to be green cooling towers. Then a huge bum appears over the horizon, shouting and cursing. Then the camera cuts to the city in miniature with the bum standing beside it, telling us that the bum was normal-sized all along. In this way Gilliam plays with the visual impressions that dominate the world of Brazil, exposing them for the superficialities that they are.

Such a vision might be considered the extreme condition of the modern society which Jean Baudrillard called "obscene". In his essay "Rituals of Transparency," Baudrillard writes: "Obscenity lies in the fact that there is nothing to see. It is not a sexual obscenity, but the obscenity of the real. ... Perhaps our true sexual act consists in this: in verifying to the point of giddiness the useless objectivity of things."{4} In a sexual sense, we declare "obscene" that which is essentially revealing. In a society in which all is revealed, when information is omnipresent, the end result is that there is nothing really to see. That is to say, when all things are present, it is useless to look, because there is no possibility of seeing something new. Thus, we arrive at ultimate banality. The ruling technocracy of Brazil objectifies its citizens, turning them into exchangeable drones, mere cogs in the self-perpetuating capitalist wheel. When an individually minded citizen such as Sam Lowry comes into contact with this barren society, he is left to invent his own sensations. The propagandist mantra "we're all in this together" becomes a heavy, inescapable yoke around Sam's shoulders, holding him under the reins of the bureaucracy.

In Brazil, Gilliam weaves together a titanic world of endless plumbing and file cabinets filled with redundant paperwork that for all the complexity of its exterior is utterly hollow on the inside. Instead, the lifeblood of the film comes from the dreams of one man. Which is ultimately more absurd, the dreams themselves or the society that provokes them? In truth, both are absurd to some degree, but the dreams are a reaction against the even greater absurdity of a system that is incomprehensible. In such a situation, the only sane option is to retreat into catatonia.


{1}There are three cuts of the film in existence: the "original" 142-minute cut released in European theaters, a shorter cut prepared for U.S. release, and a third cut ordered without the approval of Gilliam by then-Universal executive Sid Sheinberg. This essay will refer to the 132-minute U.S. version. References to the other cuts will be made where appropriate, and will be noted as such.

{2} In an interview for the film 12 Monkeys Gilliam explained: "I love things from the industrial revolution because I can understand gears and pulleys, cars and wheels. I don't get the electronic revolution because I can't get my hands on it. I'm impotent." (Interview by Nick James, Sight and Sound, April 1996)

{3} Woodward, Kathleen. "From Virtual Cyborgs to Biological Time Bombs: Technocriticism and the Material Body." Culture on the Brink, Bender, Gretchen, and Timothy Druckrey ed. Seattle: Bay Press,1994, p. 59.

{4} Baudrillard, Jean (Schutze, Bernard and Caroline trans.) The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotexte, 1988, pp. 31-32.

"Central Services! Troubles with your ducts?"

NEWSLETTER volume II, no. 2. June, 1992

Return I Will to Old Brazil
Glenn W. Erickson and Sandra S. Fernandes Erickson

Tomorrow was another day,
The Morning found me miles away
With still a million things to say.
As twilight beams the sky above,
Recalling thrills of our love
There's one thing I'm certain of:
Return I will
To old Brazil.

Title song to Brazil

Brazil was and remains a confusing, if not a confused, film. It is set "somewhere in the twentieth century," filmed in the studio in England and on location in England and France, has the name of a South American nation as a title, features interiors and cityscapes from the first half or even third or quarter of the twentieth century, contains old fashioned and slightly futuristic elements, portrays the state (bureaucratic) terrorism of the sort Hannah Arendt described as "the banalization of evil," and combines the concepts and moods of feature films such as 1984, Blade Runner, and Total Recall.

What is more, despite the dreadful events of the plot, Brazil is chock full of humor of all variety from the broadest slapstick to the subtlest parody. This aspect of the film constantly reminds us that it was produced, directed, and co-authored by Terry Gilliam, one of the Monty Python players. The other co-authors are Charles McKeown, who appears in the film as the character Lime, and Tom Stoppard, author of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the play and the motion picture.

Stoppard's presence on the playbill suggests, correctly, allusions to Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Hamlet figure is the film's protagonist, Samuel Lowry. His mother, Madam Ida Lowry, is concerned over his "lack of promotion," and uses her influence to arrange his advancement. His deceased father, Jeremiah, was the former superior and close friend of Deputy Minister Eugene Helpmann, in charge of Information Retrieval. With regard to the ghost of Hamlet's father, Helpmann reveals to Sam that Jeremiah still appears in the Ministry of Information as "the ghost in the machine." Helpmann's elevator code, "ERE I AM, J.H.," is an anagram for Jeremiah. That the initial letter H' in this phrase is dropped from the word "Here" reminds us that Hamlet's father was killed in his sleep by having lead poured in his ear. The connection is reinforced by Sam Lowry's Freudian slip in the same scene, "falsies" for "false ears." When Sam uses the elevator code to visit Helpmann's executive suites, he discovers a portrait of his mother adorning Helpmann's desk, the suggestion being that Helpmann is playing Claudius to Madam Lowry's Gertrude.

There are other plot elements that might be interpreted as contributing to the Hamlet theme. The Ophelia figure is Shirley Terrain, whose relationship is encouraged by Sam's mother and her own mother, Alma Terrain, but in whom Sam shows no interest. That Alma is a kind of Polonius is suggested by a torture-induced hallucination in which Sam reduces her corpse to a pile of putrid flesh and bones. Also, in a fight scene Sam effects the murder of two guards, who are presumably Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern figures; and since many of the plot elements come in twos, Sam also participates when the Horatio figure, "Harry" Tuttle wastes (with liquid excrement) two heating engineers from Central Services, including Spoor.

Apart form cinematographic and dramatic allusion, what we would like to emphasize is that the reason for the title of the film is not merely that the old Brazilian samba song, "Aquarela do Brazil," literally "Brazilian Watercolor" (but translated in the film as simply "Brazil") is the title tune of the film. Rather, it is because Brazil is, from the military coup of 1964 through the time of the making of the film, the most consistent example of state terrorism in the world.

In the film, the vehicle of state terrorism is the Ministry of Information, just as in Brazil. In Brazil the movie, torture was associated with the sub-ministry called Information Retrieval: a part of the Ministry containing the Departments of Records, Information Adjustments, Information Transit, and so on. In Brazil the country, the agency of the Ministry most closely associated with detention of suspected terrorists was the SNI, the National Information Service, and the bureau where detainees were tortured was the DOI-CODI, the Center of Detention and Information of the Department of Operations and Information. The Ministry of Information commands seven per cent of the gross national product, and to cut costs to the taxpayer, people who are arrested and tortured are charged for this service by the government. One of the main dilemmas of the film is what to do with the refund check for the electricity charged to the man who suffered a heart attack under torture while being mistakenly detained.

Despite thirteen years of combatting urban guerrillas, the pattern of terrorist bombing continues unabated. The implication of this pattern of facts is that the Ministry of Information has merely invented the urban guerrillas to justify its own expenditures. This interpretation is suggested by Sam's dream girl, Jill Layton, when she asks if Sam, who works for the ministry, has actually met a terrorist.

Yet if the terrorist bombings are the work of agents provocateurs from the Ministry of Information itself, there is a parallel with Brazil. In 1981 the car of two SNI agents was blown up as they prepared to plant a bomb at a rock concert at the Rio Center, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One of the agents died (like Sam's father), the other was crippled in his legs (like Mr. Helpmann). With respect to the torture of Sam Lowry himself, in Brazil there is a famous case of the son of a prominent general who was "interrogated" by the information services.

As in Argentina, Brazilian state terrorism was characterized by the arbitrary "disappearances" of members of the middle class, in contrast to the traditional and normalized killing of peasants. In the movie, Archibald Buttle, shoe repair operative, is arrested in place of Archibald "Harry" Tuttle, heating engineer. There is, by the way, an inconsistency in the film in that in the arrest form appearing momentarily near the beginning of the film it is Tuttle who is listed as a "shoe repair operative." (Note also that Madam Lowry is always wearing a hat in the form of a high-heeled shoe.) The reason Buttle replaces Tuttle in the torture chamber is that a dead beetle falls into the machine typing out the arrest order, and Brazil is characterized by the presence of insects.

Note two more parallels with Brazilian state terrorism. The first is the use of high tech gadgetry as a means of control. For example, just as Sam's old friend, Jack Lint, used electrical and surgical devices in his torture chamber, so too the torture documented in the Church's documentation of state torture in Brazil Nunca Mais (translated as Torture in Brazil), was characteristically high tech.

Again, just as television is a device of tyranny in the film there is hardly an interior scene in the movie without a video screen, so too the president of Brazil at the time of the film used to address the citizens of Brazil on television not as "my fellow citizens" but as "television spectators."

Second is the apparent accommodation of the people to violence, as the customers of the restaurant hardly blink an eye as fellow dinners are blown away by a terrorist bomb. The reason for this feigned indifference is that even an expression of preoccupation with terrorist bombing could be interpreted as a sign of discontent with the government, making one a candidate, as in the case of Jill Layton, for remedial action by the government.

There are various other details that suggest Brazil as a model for the kind of political and cultural regime portrayed in the film. First, there is the bureaucratic excess in which nothing can be done without filling out a form in duplicate, in which no document is valid without being stamped repeatedly by functionaries, and in which people sign each others' names on documents as a matter of course, as Sam Lowry signs Mrs. Buttle's refund check for Mr. Kurtzmann, while Mr. Kurtzmann (note Heart of Darkness allusion) signs Lowry's refusal of his promotion to Information Retrieval for him.

Second, the high technology that does not function correctly such as the elevators with minds of their own, or Jack Lowry's automated apartment because of consistent failure of organizational technology, which failures are responsible for the constant snafus upon which the film's plot moves. In the film, Harry Tuttle's free-lance repairs were considered by Central Services as sabotage, just as in Brazil it is illegal for a private citizen, but not the state petroleum monopoly, to change a car from gasoline to gasohol, or to change the electrical currency on a VCR.

Third, the cult of youth and the "body beautiful," as shown in the appearance of the plastic surgeons, Drs. Jaffe (the "knife man") and Chapman (the "acid man") parallels the vanity of Brazil's middle class that has made Brazil the world's leading center of cosmetic surgery. Again, coupons for caesarean sections parallel the high incidence of this procedure in Brazil.

Finally, in the winged statuary in the Ministry of Information as in Sam Lowry's fantasy of himself as a hang-gliding knight (note the famous hang-gliders of Rio de Janeiro), the film uses flight as a symbol of freedom. The Brazilian capital too has its residential districts distributed along the "wings" in the design of the planned city.

The movie ends in the interior monologue of a crazed Sam Lowry, who sings in his imagination the epigraph of this review above. Not set in Elsinore but in a place like Brazilia, with its cityscape divided into huge high-rise residential blocks, the "old Brazil" to which the singer resolves to return is the one that existed before the military coup and its aftermath cast over everything the pall of techno- terrorism.

Brazil: 1985, Embassy International, 130 min. Written Charles McKeown, Tom Stoppard, and Terry Gilliam, directed by Terry Gilliam. Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, Katherine Helmond as Ida Lowry, Peter Vaughan as Deputy Minister Eugene Helpmann, Ian Holm as Mr. Kurtzmann, Bob Hoskins as Spoor, Robert De Niro as "Harry" Tuttle, Kim Greist as Jill Layton, Michael Palin as Jack Lint.