Brazil (1985): “It’s only a state of mind”

In 1985, director Terry Gilliam brought to the audiences an extraordinary visual experiences of science fiction through the black comedy in Brazil. Brazil has the quality of symbolic representations of the visual effects as generally found in science fiction movies. However, it rarely concerns itself with science or technology in a direct and bold manner (as for instance can be found in 2001: a Space Odyssey). Ever so often, technology merely serves as a medium to exaggerate the underlying social, political or moral messages. Nevertheless, even after more than 25 years since its release, Brazil still manages to charm through its unique visual treats as well as its underlying themes that do not cease to be relevant this time around. Set in a dystopian city somewhere in the 20th century, Brazil walks the audiences through a bizarre yet unsettlingly familiar world of Sam Lowry, the main character played by Jonathan Pryce.

Central Services duct commercial

The narrative begins with a TV commercial on Central Services’ ducts followed by a major explosion caused by a presumably terrorist attack. One of the surviving TV continues on with an interview of the Deputy Minister, Mr. Helpmann, which assures viewers that the marked 13th year of terrorist attacks is a beginner luck. Simultaneously, a bored personnel (which is later known to be working in the Information Retrieval department) kills a bug which in its death has successfully jammed one of the typewriter/printer causing a minor typo which turns out to be extremely unfortunate for the Buttle family as the father is thus mistakenly arrested by the government in the belief that he is the subversive heat engineer, Tuttle. This subplot ensues the fateful encounter between Sam and his dream girl, Jill Layton. Confronted by the reality of his wildest dream, Sam a quick witted man who at first appears to be submissive to the system, is gradually transformed into a frustrated rebel. Sam’s journey reveals an internal and external fights. In the first quarter of the movie, Sam frequently escapes the bleak reality by visiting his internal dreamworld. After meeting Jill, Sam’s rebellions portray external fights against the system. However, when the movie ends, we found out that the system is after all far too formidable for Sam’s external efforts. Rather, as Gilliam noted, he managed to create a story in which the happy ending is achieved by becoming insane. This may well be translated as insanely imaginative (or unrealistic) or as a complete retreat into one’s own mind in order to achieve true freedom.

The abovementioned opening scenes establish Brazil within the scifi genre-norms where pervasive commercials, uses of neons and impressive explosions are part of the treats. It is however clear that the technology involved (ducts and TV per se) are not the most inventive or autonomous as compared to Blade Runner for example. They merely represent the social issues of pervasive centralized government controls by use of technology (in this case the ducts as the information channel) and the addictive power of TV as an escape route for people from their pointless routines. It may be noticed in these sequences of events that the changes of scenes were all connected by TV screens (department store’s TVs, TV in the personnel’s office, TV in the Buttle’s family house, and a reflected TV screen in Jill’s bathroom). Later on, we can also see that in the Records office, the workers are glued to the TV sets whenever Mr. Kurtzmann (the department head) is out of sight.

As with the jammed bug, it cleverly instills the underlying metaphor of how unreliable technology can be and how incredibly incapable and rigid the organized and centralized institutions are in dealing with these insignificant-bug caused events. This is one of the underlying themes throughout the movie. Sam’s apartment which in the first introduction uneventfully causes him to drink sugar instead of tea and have soggy toast as breakfast. And as the movie continues, his apartment progressively breaks down due to a tiny but significantly disastrous piece that is fished out by Tuttle. The two repairmen from Central Services thus represent the rigid authority that fail to deal with and solve the problem.

Meanwhile, Tuttle’s bypass sabotage was clearly efficient. Besides its obvious pointer at government vs. terrorist (or perhaps simply an opposing individual), this storyline also questions human’s capability to deal with complicated system and technology. It brings into view other characters such as Mr. Kurtzmann who relies heavily on Sam to assist him with computer related issues and Harvey Lime who is technologically challenged as he exclaims that his computer is broken while Sam shows him that he simply has not turn it on yet. There are a number of other examples which are in lines with this theme. The selected examples are interesting mainly because they quite clearly represent the fears or anxiety in technology handling.

The plastic surgery

On the other hand, there is also a strong affinity with science and technology, this can be particularly noticed from the medical practices in the movie. Sam’s mother, Ida Lowry adores her doctor as well as being untroubled by the medical procedures that she has to go through. In the upper class community, cosmetic surgery is part of the norms. The doctors are pleased and proud with their ability to master the science and they are equally well accepted in the community. And despite the unreliability of technology discussed previously, the ministry is depicted as having absolute confidence in their technology, frequently claiming that they never make mistakes. Furthermore, a positive representation of technology may also be found in Sam’s dreams where he pictures himself wearing a winged armour (this could have been only a representation of his freedom but to a certain extent it involves technology). The shooting of this flying scene required a mechanical flying model and rather laborious technical efforts from the team which in part show how scifi movie in its effort to depict technological issues has to rely heavily on technology itself.

The duality (or love and hate relationship) of responses toward the system (or technology as the means) is culminated in the dream scene where Sam defeats the Samurai and he discovers that the man behind the mask is his own image. Sam, so much as he tries to fight the system, is as much immersed in it. He consistently makes use of the system to defeat the system. He uses the 27B/6 form to dismiss the Central Services repairmen, for instance. At his lowest point, Sam begs Mr. Helpmann to help him out of his hopeless situation, whereas Helpmann is obviously a principal character behind the system. To stress the point, Sam fiercely refused the promotion that his mother has helped him gained, presumably a stance he chooses in order to keep himself out of the society norms. However, in order to reach his dream, he has to again conform to the societal structure. As Tuttle repeatedly states: “We’re all in it together”.

Unconcerned diners during restaurant explosion

Another technology, namely guns, serve another theme in Brazil. They are exceptionally prevalent, pointed quickly and shoved at ease at almost anybody who is the slightest suspicious. However, the victims are in many cases not very affected by the actions. The serious effects of what guns may have caused have been reduced to a point where it almost felt like the guns were fake. People are simply not scared anymore. The same holds for the terrorist bombings which strikingly show unresponsiveness from the desensitized crowds eating at a restaurant or shopping in a mall. This leads to another underlying theme, that is of  dehumanization as shown by the lack of emotional responses. At first glance, viewers are commonly taken by the brutally inhumane way in which Mr. Buttle is arrested. Even Sam is similarly insensitive when he delivers the refund check to Mrs. Buttle who is very much in tears for her lost husband. Sam takes the opportunity to explain that it is out of the ordinary that he has to personally delivers the check which normally goes automatically through the central services. In this encounter, it appears as though the fear is projected at personal human relationships and that technology has become a solution to minimize such engagement. When technology is in use, human is reduced to a simple object or datasets. This can also be seen through the employee arrangement of the Ministry of Information (MOI) where workers are identified by their corresponding codes. Many other scenes in Brazil show telling signs of dehumanization. One of the most memorable is the scene where Mr. Kurtzmann rather puzzlingly reads Mr. Buttle’s records that have him described as “dormanted”, “deleted”, “inoperative”, “excised” and “completed” instead of “dead”. The scientific or technical or official term is a tool to undermine emotional responses that may be drawn out by the universal term.

While human is gradually dehumanized, the intertwined ducts morphology which at times are accompanied by breathe-like noises, particularly in Sam’s apartment, are giving a heightened sense of a living organism. As if Sam was trapped inside a living city. In its subtlety, this in turn raises the existential question commonly found in scifi movies.

With respect to the cityscape of Sam’s world, it looks almost as if it is a zoomed in view of one of the upper world apartment’s blocks in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Every time Tuttle slides his way out of Sam’s balcony, it creates a feeling that the megastructure consists of infinite levels with great depth. The upper and under world concept is also quite apparent in Brazil. The decaying city where lower class citizens, such as Jill or Buttle family live is filled with anarchies and contrastingly filthy in comparison with the city where Sam lives. Furthermore, the monolith shaped MOI building is similarly representing a central power as with Fredersen’s office. One thing that stands out from the cityscape is the lack of natural environment which strikes strongly when the scene changed into Sam’s imagination of the safe place where he pictures a natural landscape with greens and natural hills. The city settings that revolve around Sam’s apartment, Records office, MOI office, Ida’s house, Buttle’s apartment, city streets and shopping malls, at times appear somewhat surreals as though they are pieces of a broken memory. There are contrasting mismatches among the settings in terms of architectural styles and designs. One thing does connect them together however, and that is the persistently prevalent ducts which always appear ill-matched to the surroundings (e.g. in the antique setting of Ida’s house). This may also represent subdued aesthetic values.

The hallway in Sam's apartment block

All in all, Brazil primarily presents science and technology as a means to achieve human’s desires and hopes, to ease fears, to thwart dreams. Many social and moral issues are focal points in this representation, such as individual privacy, rights to information, medical procedures, bureaucracy, dehumanization, social classes, commercialization, rigid authority, and some more. They eventually lead to the main theme that is truth and freedom. In one of the last scenes where Sam and Jill drive off into a  mountainous green farmland and subsequently viewers are brought back into the gigantic torture chamber where Sam is held, a question buds on whether the nightmarish city is at all a reality or if it is as well only Sam’s imagination. However, an immediate revelation comes that the city of Brazil is the exaggerated creative imaginations of Gilliam in order to present and impress the viewers with his perceptions of the real world. Gilliam is applauded by many for his efforts. In my opinion Brazil is justifiably deserving as it leads the viewers to question and rethink many of the choices that we make or perhaps more importantly ones that are involuntarily made for us by the system in place. In the end, the question of what the true freedom is remains. As the slogan under the huge flying man reads “The truth shall make you free”. Sam chooses insanity as his truth. Meanwhile, in the viewers’ reality, what could possibly be the truth that leads to freedom?


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