not in our stars, but in ourselves
“It’s only a state of mind,” Brazil‘s tagline promises. Would that it were so.
Sometime in the twentieth century, we’re informed, a tiny and unpredictable event (scientist of some sort swats a fly on the ceiling of his office, fly falls into computer, computer misprints one sheet of paper) leads to a massively disruptive chain reaction. The Ministry of Information – which is split into an untold number of self-contained, non-communicative departments – mistakenly arrests Archibald Buttle instead of Archibald Tuttle. The government is trying to eradicate “terrorists,” and takes a hardline approach, arresting them and taking them away for interrogation without a second question. Tuttle is the suspected terrorist, not Buttle – but, as mentioned, no questions asked or allowed. In the Ministry of Information’s records department, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is probably the most competent person. He regularly cleans up messes for his boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), and the Buttle-Tuttle mix-up seems to be no different. Au contraire. On a surveillance camera, Sam sees Jill (Kim Greist), the woman he’s been dreaming of – literally – for ages. He finds that she, a neighbor of Mr. Buttle, is vainly attempting to inform the powers-that-be of their mistake. For her assistance, she’s labeled a terrorist as well. Sam does everything he can to sort out the Buttle mess, and to help Jill, but that – of course – also exposes him as a target to a government that would rather “disappear” citizens than actually deal with cleaning up a mess.
Every review seems to mention that Brazil is Terry Gilliam’s version of 1984, and Gilliam himself says it was an inspiration (although he never got around to reading the book). Who am I to disagree? Nevertheless, as Jack Matthews puts it:
The comparisons are understandable, if inaccurate. There isn’t a futuristic moment or element in Brazil. The story is Orwellian, in the sense that it is set in a totalitarian state where individuality is smothered by enforced conformity. But where George Orwell, writing in 1948, was envisioning a future ruled by fascism and technology, Gilliam was satirizing the bureaucratic, largely dysfunctional industrial world that had been driving him crazy all his life.
Perhaps it’s just a feature of the bigger, more visible governments we have nowadays: they never say what they actually mean, no one department knows what the other is doing, and they all have cute names like “Ministry of Information” and “Department of Homeland Security.” There’s a lot to drive one out of one’s mind, if one is paying attention, in the current state of things – “current” stretching back to the end of World War II, I’d estimate – and that’s ultimately where Brazil ends up.
However, Brazil has much more heart and humor than anything that dour dullard Orwell could ever have grasped even vaguely. Sam is a cog in a machine. And yet, he doesn’t resist, he doesn’t fight, he doesn’t even resent it: he forms a relationship with Mr. Kurtzmann, and seems to derive real satisfaction from being able to help him. His day-to-day life is sad and grey and tiring, but he has a rich fantasy life. It sustains him. In an omniscient and omnipotent dystopia, what else can you do except dream? Sam’s dream of Jill is sweet and silly and lovely. Why does he see her face, before they ever meet? Who knows. A glitch in the matrix, maybe: the world is full of those, you know. Pryce is terribly funny and downbeat and affecting as Sam; Katherine Helmond is delightfully insipid and vain as Sam’s plastic surgery-obsessed mother; Holm is twitchy and hysterical enough for one to wish he’d been part of Monty Python or at least Fawlty Towers; and, speaking of the Python lads, Michael Palin is just the kind of charming and morally bankrupt bureaucratic killing machine the tinfoil hats have warned you about. It really is funny, despite or because of the quasi-Deep State angles.
It’s never entirely explained what happened in the world to bring it to this place. That doesn’t matter, of course, since the story works on its own merits – but it’s fun to speculate. For all the Orwell talk out there, I haven’t seen all that much mention of Nazis. To my mind, this dystopia makes sense as one in which the Nazis either won or struck a deal with the Allies. There are German-ish names everywhere (Helpmann, Kurtzmann, Warrenn); there’s the police state; there are Sam’s dreams, in which he’s a soaring eagle, flying as Wagnerian music accompanies him; and there’s the fact that the goddamn movie is called Brazil, one of several South American countries to which assorted escaping Nazis fled in order to practice scary dentistry. Again – it doesn’t matter. Horrifying world events don’t always lead to huge, sweeping societal changes. Seemingly meaningless events lead to slow death by incrementalism. Good note for Certain People to make in this election year.
On that note, the most striking feature of Brazil is how accurately it predicts 2016. For-profit imprisonment? A government that’s always watching and listening, but never understanding? Fighting “terrorists” for thirteen years without any notable victories? Rigid class structures? I could keep going, but you get the idea. Brazil is from 1985, when Greed Was Good, but things weren’t even nearly as bad as they would become thirty-one years later. Will they get better? Well, maybe if you take Sam’s route out. You’re probably getting the idea: this is not an optimistic movie. Gilliam was pressured by his studio into releasing a “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil, but he snuck around behind their back and screened his own version for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association – to great acclaim. His own version includes what we can only describe as a pitch-black ending – but what else would make sense? The old melodramas usually end with a tacked-on ending that belies the real point: that life is short, hard, full of needlessly byzantine rules that are all intended to keep us from being happy or even from thinking. Welcome to the future. We’re all in it together.