Filmsite Movie Review
Brazil (1985)
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Background

Brazil (1985) is from director/co-screenwriter Terry Gilliam - a combination science-fiction, despairing black comedy and fantasy that combines elements of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), George Orwell's novel 1984 (and director Michael Radford's 1984 (1984) that opened at about the same time), Kafka's The Trial, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971)), and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982).

Throughout this superb film that satirizes modern technological society, one can glimpse numerous government propaganda signs, billboards, posters and writings that preach conformity and Big Brother wariness - all references to Orwell's 1984. [The signs are credited to co-scriptwriter Charles McKeown.] Police are represented as storm troopers (Nazi-like), and the names of two major officials have stereotypical German names: Kurtzmann and Helpmann.

The influential film's enigmatic title refers to the popular Latin song from the late 1930s by Arry Barroso, often used as an escapist theme in the orchestral soundtrack (by Michael Kamen). Other titles were considered for the film: The Ministry of Torture, 1984 1/2 (homage to Fellini's 8 1/2), and How I Learned to Live with the System - So Far. The normal workers in society are docile, powerless, and obedient - to avoid calling attention to themselves and ending up eradicated (literally and figuratively) from the files in the Ministry of Information's flawed computer system.

This popular and compelling film with a large cult following is one of the most visually imaginative, breath-taking, eccentric films ever created, with incredible sets, dazzling inventiveness and production design (by Norman Garwood). The film is so visually dense that it takes several viewings to fully comprehend (i.e., the billboard slogans, the user-unfriendly technical gadgets, the unforgettable images, etc.). The most memorable and outrageous components in the absurdist film include the ugly, violent, nightmarish urban environment, and the miles of inept plumbing, piping and ductwork that continually proliferate and threaten to malfunction. The title is based on the Ary Barroso/S.K. Russell song of the same name, with the lyrics: "Brazil / Where hearts were entertaining June / We stood beneath an amber moon / And softly murmured 'someday soon' / We kissed and clung together / Then, tomorrow was another day / The morning found me miles away / With still a million things to say".

The morose and complex plot, set in a decaying, terrorist-threatened Londonesque metropolis (with a Fascist government), revolves around a meek, unambitious, and humble urban worker/computer expert named Sam Lowry (Pryce) in the red tape-plagued, bureaucratic Ministry of Information. As a lone hero, he combats the real technological threat of The Machine Age to his life by his fantasies of defiance as a winged savior during his nightly dreams. To escape reality and his grinding down by oppressive, official forces (both in the real world and in his imaginative dreams, in the form of evil creatures), he dreamily wings his way into the sky - with lofty but doomed flights - away from technology toward a blonde fantasy-dream girl (Greist). The film's chain of events is set in motion by a clerical error, which condemns an innocent man, and causes Sam to meet his dream girl - a suspected terrorist. His apparent salvation from the nightmarish, chaotic, paper-choked, poorly-functioning society comes in the form of a guerrilla heating-engineer and terrorist enemy of the state Harry Tuttle (De Niro), whose renegade behavior is opposed by the state's own Central Services representative (Hoskins) and Sam's friend-turned-sinister MOI official Jack Lint (Palin). But in the end, the lowly and self-deluded worker is persecuted and tortured to death while again imagining escape to an illusory idyllic paradise that is free of societal restrictions.

However, it may be argued that the existence of 'terrorists' in the film (i.e., Jill Layton, Buttle/Tuttle, and Sam are all accused of being terrorists) and various 'terrorist' acts (i.e., the restaurant and shop bombing, the blown up car) are deliberately made ambiguous - it is very probable that the central threat of terrorism is the government's way to silence deviation, provoke fear, cover up its multiple errors, and provide a scapegoat enemy. Viewers must interpret this central theme of the film for themselves - and recognize the fact that ironically -- there may be no terrorists at all.

Former animator Gilliam (an American), famous for his work in the TV comedy Monty Python's Flying Circus and in his two previous films Time Bandits (1981) and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983), wrote the screenplay for the bleak, futuristic film with playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Charles McKeown. Its two Academy Award nominations were for Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration - both unrewarded with Oscars. The film, a merging of fantasy and reality, was considered part of a "dreamer" trilogy, of sorts, an Age of Reason trilogy reflecting the different ages of man's reason (and of Gilliam himself) in which reason is the opposite of fantasy and dreaming:

Gilliam's First Trilogy
Stages of Life
Time Bandits (1981) The dreamer as a child
Brazil (1985) The dreamer as a young or middle-aged man
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) The dreamer as an older man, who through his story-telling, attains immortality

The Battle of BrazilThe film was already in distribution in Europe by 20th Century Fox, but because of the film's length, complexity, and slightly overdone second half, MCA-Universal Pictures (and studio head Sidney Sheinberg), the domestic distributor, forced Gilliam to cut about twelve minutes from the 144 minute European theatrical version before its general US release in 1986. Severe editing cuts proposed by the studio, that emphasized the film's romantic themes and provided a happy ending (dubbed the Sheinberg "Love Conquers All" 94 minute version), threatened to change the message and tone of the entire film. With limited studio support, Gilliam was finally able to open his own 131 minute cut of Brazil in late 1985 (the American release version), after the LA Film Critics Association awarded the longer version with Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards. [This saga of Gilliam's David vs. Goliath struggle with the movie studio was documented in Jack Mathews' book The Battle of Brazil.]

The film fared poorly and disappointingly at the box-office. However, in intervening years, especially after the release of the original, full-length Director's Cut (142 minutes long, combining footage from both the American and European theatrical release versions), it has been critically-acclaimed as a social satire on the dehumanizing, claustrophobic effects of technology and government, and regarded as one of the greatest cult classics ever made.

[This review is based upon the American theatrical release version that played at about 133 minutes.]

The Story

The film's credits play atop aerial views of bushy cumulus clouds (viewed from the perspective of flight) backlit by the sun, while part of the title song Brazil is heard:

Brazil, where hearts were entertained in June
We stood beneath an amber moon,
And softly murmured 'Some day soon'
We kissed.

The time is identified by titles as evening time, but in a place without time:

8:45 P.M., SOMEWHERE IN THE 20th CENTURY

The film begins with an elaborate and complex visual sequence that introduces many of the film's themes and sets the action in motion. A plain TV screen, framed by the camera, displays the logo for a Central Services advertisement above an animation of duct-work, with the following message announced by a sincere-sounding, middle-aged business salesman (John Flanagan) who stands next to pipes coming out of a room's walls. [Ducts, grotesquely appearing throughout the film, represent the snaking, ubiquitous connections between the centralized bureaucracy and the lives of the oppressed people.]

(Chorus) Central Services - We do the work, you do the pleasure.
(Announcer) Hi there. I want to talk to you about ducts. Do your ducts seem old fashioned, out of date? Central Services' new duct designs are now available in hundreds of different colors to suit your individual tastes....

The camera slowly pulls back, identifying the TV screen as one of many in another frame - a department store window display. As a Christmas shopper, with a cart filled with parcels passes by the window from right to left, a violent explosion from inside the store breaks the glass and destroys the man by its shattering glass, glowing sparks and fire. The film's title, accompanied by dramatic musical tones, appears as a red and purple neon sign that tilts upward from a horizontal position. It pulses and glows brightly and then rushes toward the camera.

Although the rubble from the blast continues to burn, one of the TV screens that lies on its side is still visible. The camera slowly moves in and turns clockwise to watch and listen to the timely interview with the charming, white-haired Ministry of Information Deputy Minister, Eugene Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), about a rash of terrorist bombings:

Interviewer: 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 -

The TV interview continues, but now on the black and white TV screen of a white-coated desk worker sitting in his bare office - in the Department of Records. [Behind him in the computer room is a poster reading: LOOSE TALK IS NOOSE TALK.] The camera pulls over to a group of teletype machines while the interview continues. Helpmann describes the 13 year-old campaign against terrorism as a sporting game, justified because the government 'charges' terrorists for the costs of their "Information Retrieval" (their torture, incarceration, interrogation and punishment):

Helpmann: - they'd get a lot more out of life.
Interviewer: Nevertheless, Mr. Helpmann, there are those who maintain that the Ministry of Information has become too large and unwieldy...And the cost of it all, Deputy Minister? Seven percent of the gross national product.
Helpmann: I understand this concern on behalf of the tax payers. People want value for money. 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 for the Information Retrieval Procedures used in their interrogation.
Interviewer: Do you believe 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.

The technician is distracted by a large buzzing beetle flying in the room. He swats at it with a rolled-up folder of papers. Exasperated, he precariously climbs up to the top of his tall file cabinet to smash it against the ceiling. The dead insect's carcass falls into one of the teletype machines, causing it to malfunction. The typewriter mechanism is typing the name of a terrorist to be questioned named TUTTLE on numerous forms, with the heading:

MINISTRY OF INFORMATION
DEPT OF INFORMATION RETRIEVAL
SUBJECT FOR DETENTION AND INTERVIEW

However, on one of the forms, the letter T is misprinted and replaced with the letter B (and a gory splotch of the insides of the bug), rendering the name as BUTTLE. [This bureaucratic foul-up will cause an innocent, "decent law-abiding citizen" named Buttle to be apprehended instead of a real terrorist named Tuttle.] The interview continues unabated:

Helpmann: Why should decent law-abiding citizens have to subsidize criminals?
Interviewer: But Mr. Helpmann, the bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year.
Helpmann: Beginner's luck.

The scene shifts again, using the TV screen as the common element from scene to scene. In their apartment, a family (the Buttles), composed of the parents and two children (nine year old Boy Buttle, Simon Nash and six year old Girl Buttle: Prudence Oliver), is watching the same interview as it ends in their Christmas-decorated living room. Mrs. Buttle (Sheila Reid) is reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to her daughter - her first word associates the miserly Scrooge with Helpmann: "Scrooge was better than his word..." The young boy plays with a toy machine gun and dark-colored toy action figures (a foreshadowing). The room has huge, blackish-gray ductwork suspended just below the ceiling.

On the apartment floor above them, the upstairs tenant's TV screen broadcasts the Marx Brothers' first feature film Cocoanuts (1929). At the end of a long hallway is the tenant's bathroom, where an amused, short-haired, butch young woman (a truck driver) - named Jill Layton (Kim Greist) - is scrubbing the grime from her nails and smoking a dangling cigarette while taking a bath in dirty water. [The TV's image from the living room is reflected by a series of mirrors into the bathroom where she watches the film on another mirror.] She is startled to see the shadow of a uniformed intruder momentarily block the image as he crosses in front of one of the mirrors in her living room. She sinks deeper into the water as she calls out: "Who's there? Who is that?"

A saw cuts a circular hole in the Buttle family's ceiling (Jill's floor), allowing access to their apartment and signifying the start of a raid on the unsuspecting Mr. Buttle (Brian Miller) who is now a subject for detention and interview by the security troops of the Ministry of Information - due to a case of mistaken identity [a computer glitch or bug - literally!]. Suddenly, in a jarring and violent scene, troops descend on a pole into the Buttle's living room and through the front door and side windows as Mrs. Buttle cowers and screams in terror. The troops quickly place the frightened husband in a canvas strait-jacket with a hood, straps, and buckles. His neck is constrained by a metal clamp ring. A plain-clothed Ministry of Information official enters and reads the notice of Buttle's incarceration, including the principle of Information Retrieval charges, and then forces the dazed and panic-stricken Mrs. Buttle to sign the documents as her husband (with muffled cries heard under the burlap) is hauled away:

I hereby inform you under powers entrusted to me under Section 476 that Mr. Buttle, Archibald, residing at 412 North Tower, Shangri La Towers, has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain inquiries and that he is liable to certain financial obligations as specified in Council Order RB-stroke-C-Z-stroke-nine-O-seven-stroke-X.

The ultimate indignity is his presentation to her of the receipt:

That is your receipt for your husband. Thank you. (He takes back his pen.) And this is my receipt for your receipt.

Jill, wearing only a shirt, has witnessed the brutal incident from above from the hole in her apartment's flooring. The Department of Works engineers - workers with hard-hats who had cut the hole for the assault - are tidying up. One of them remarks that the cut-out from the floor doesn't fit: "Bloody typical, they've gone back to metric without telling us." She realizes that they have seized the wrong man:

Tuttle? His name's Buttle. There must be some mistake.

A close-up of Mrs. Buttle's receipt serves as the transitionary image to the next scene in the Record Clerks Pool of the Ministry of Information. There, a white and pink copy of Mrs. Buttle's receipt (in close-up) is stamped 'DEPT. of RECORDS' - the white copy is placed on a sharp spindle at the record clerk's desk, and the pink copy is stacked in a desk-side tray. Two incredible dolly shots (first pulling backward, then moving forward) track through the clerks' pool - in homage to Kubrick's moving shot in the WWI trenches in Paths of Glory (1957). The pink form is immediately picked up by a bustling office boy moving through the aisle. There is tremendous activity between expansive rows of desks each equipped with TV screens (each with an extended magnifying lens), lockers, and piles of paperwork. Dozens of clerks and office workers hurriedly dart to and fro. Supervising and surveying the office area from a raised stairway is the boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), who stands before his private, opaque glassed-in office. [The forward tracking shot ends with the zoom up to Kurtzmann.] When he disappears into his office and closes the door, all of the fervent motion ceases, and the workers tune their TV screens into an old western.

Kurtzmann checks out one of the Ministry of Information (M.O.I.) records - the one for Buttle, Archibald. He types the name into his computer console, but it returns a beeping 'ERROR' message. Frustrated by this, he activates the intercom and calls for Mr. Lowry for assistance, but there is no response. He presses another button on his console and the TV western pops into view with a blaring soundtrack. Exasperated, he races for the door - twice - to catch his idle workers, but they all seem to be going about their routine tasks each time. He shouts out above the din: "Has anybody seen Lowry?"


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