What Does This Movie Mean? Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985)
Another entry on movie interpretation. If you haven’t seen Brazil, are planning to see it, and do not want the experience ruined for you, do not read past the jump. This essay is geared towards people who have seen the movie. Major plot points will be revealed, and minor plot points too. Proceed at your own risk.
You know, this entry sat almost complete for several months because I just couldn’t think of an introduction. How to summarize Brazil? I never really wanted to make movies, but this is one of those films that make me really envious of filmmakers. Here is an opportunity to put all your crazy, weird, possibly teenage, fantasies to celluloid. Brazil is like steampunk, except with mid-twentieth-century technology. If there was an ipad in it, it would probably have wheels and run off a tank of diesel. Everyone is dressed like it’s 1943. Against this bizarre backdrop, a simple — but then again, not so simple — story of one man’s and one woman’s (or, possibly, one man who is represented both as a man and a woman) struggle against a psychotic totalitarian government takes place. I am sorry, but this is the simplest I can put it.
4. What’s real and what isn’t?
5. What is the significance of ducts?
6. Why does the Ministry of Information hunt down freelance heating engineers?
7. Why is Sam obsessed with old movies and music?
8. Lesson for today (and every day)
The movie is set in a fictional world that seems to be inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. It is a jumble of soulless concrete towers, whose inhabitants dress in 1940’s fashions, ruled over by a “Ministry of Information”, a ruthless organization that does not seem to promote any kind of ideology, other than unquestioning obedience to itself. As the name implies, the Ministry is obsessed with possessing information about everyone and everything, and employs a massive centralized bureaucracy to manage its never-ending tzunami of paperwork. The most distinctive visual feature of the world portrayed in Brazil is a convoluted system of grey ducts, mostly for conveying paper, which invade every room and every office.
Sam Lowry is a clerk in Records, the lowliest department within the Ministry. He is happy (if one can use that word) with his dead-end, undemanding job and has no ambition for career advancement, much to the consternation of his wealthy, glamorous, power-hungry mother. Periodically, Sam escapes into a recurring dream, in which he is an angel, flying high above the chaos of his world, battling demons to free a beautiful blond woman imprisoned in a cage, and finally making love to her. Three events occur that shake up Sam’s contented existence and set him on a collision course with the all-powerful Ministry: (1) he meets, literally, the woman of his dreams; (2) the heating system in his apartment breaks down; and (3) he decides to hand-deliver a “refund check” for a “Mr. Buttle”, a man mistakenly grabbed and tortured to death by the Ministry as a result of a typographical error. The convergence of these three events cause Sam to accept a promotion to Information Retrieval (a euphemistic name for a department that deals with interrogation and torture), where he abuses his position, first, to locate the woman he is obsessed with and second, to ensure her safety from his colleagues.
The title is a reference to a 1939 song “Aquarela do Brasil”, that’s often playing in the background and that Sam likes to hum. But why, of all the retro references, is this one picked for the title? Why not “Casablanca” or “The Wild West”?
I have to be careful not to read too much into it. A movie’s title is usually chosen quite late in the movie-making process and isn’t part of the overall symbolic framework. Still, the title of Brazil strikes me as kind of an in-movie joke. Jill — the woman with whom Sam is in love — mentions that there is nowhere to go to escape. This suggests that the rest of the world, including Brazil, has either been destroyed, or overtaken by the Ministry, or so completely off-limits that it may as well not exist. It endures only in song, as a fantasy of escape — and isn’t Rio the top destination for movie characters fleeing from the law? So too, in relation to the viewer, the world depicted in the movie is a kind of Brazil of its own — foreign, completely unrealistic, and a place for our imagination to escape to.
Another interesting piece of trivia: Brasil is a phantom island in Irish mythology, that is said to be always cloaked by mist. Brasil becomes visible for only one day every seven years, but even on such a day, it is still unreachable.
In any society, one will invariably find that even the bitterest political antagonists share certain baseline values. This is not meant to endorse the facile idea that all sides in a conflict are the same, only to point out that wildly divergent ideas can be embraced, somewhat paradoxically, by people who hail from similar environments and perceive certain things in very similar ways. Terrorism is a cultural phenomenon as well as a political one. A society’s perception of terrorism as an acceptable form of political expression — or, by contrast, its complete rejection of terrorism — is tied to perhaps the most fundamental concept in any culture, the value of human life.
In Brazil, we are constantly shown that the culture of that society does not value individual human life at all. This is a world where people are grabbed, tortured and killed without a trial all the time; in fact, the legal system, as such, doesn’t even exist — and people generally don’t seem to mind this. (For instance, Mrs. Buttle’s rage over the death of her husband stems from the fact that “he was good”, not that he was “completed” without even a chance to learn what the charges are or to present a defense.)
The movie begins with a bizarre interview of Mr. Helpmann, who characterizes the terrorists as bitter losers who “can’t stand to see the other guy win”. To state that the biggest problem with terrorism is denial is an immensely weird way to characterize it. Keep in mind, Helpmann’s interview is propaganda, calculated to inspire the public’s loyalty to the regime. And yet, Helpmann talks about the battle between the government and the rebels as if it were a sports competition, and does not mention once what we see as the defining evil of terrorism: the random, indiscriminate killing of civilians. This suggests that the senseless loss of life is simply not an important issue for the Ministry’s subjects. Whenever there is an explosion, no one bats an eye. When one happens in a fancy restaurant, unharmed patrons continue eating and chit-chatting, with corpses, severed body parts and screaming, maimed victims mere feet away. When another happens in a department store, survivors do not pause even for a split second in their shopping frenzy. A one legged woman is the only one standing on a train, while all the other — non-disabled — passengers relax in their seats and don’t seem to notice her. Sam is unphased when he hears anguished screaming and then, moments later, sees his friend in a torn and bloodied lab coat. Sam is also unbothered by the fact that Buttle is tortured to death by mistake; his only concern is smoothing out the bureaucratic side of the error by giving Mrs. Buttle a “refund” for her husband.
The bombings seem to be aimed primarily at disrupting the ducts, but the rebels don’t mind taking out numerous innocent people along with the Ministry’s infrastructure. This indifference does not mean they are extraordinarily heartless monsters; rather, it is a consequence of operating in a world where the killing of innocent people simply isn’t seen as a big deal.
There are many interesting scenes in Brazil, but I am thinking of one in particular: a bomb has just gone off in a department store, and Sam is frantically searching for Jill. He finds her, asks her if she is alright, and once assured that she is, berates her about the senseless violence (believing that she is the one who had set off the bomb). It’s an interesting scene because for Sam, this is completely out of character. The first half of the movie presents its protagonist, while not loathsome, as officious, bureaucratic and utterly indifferent to the feelings of other people. Jill, on the other hand, constantly asks people if they are alright and tries to help them, a rare quality in that world. So when Sam asks “Are you alright?” and breaks down over the havoc that’s just been wrought, he is kind of being Jill. This is but one of several clues that Jill is Sam’s alter ego.
I want to back up a little. I generally don’t like it when movies are interpreted as “It was all imaginary, tee-hee”, and parts of the film establish that Jill exists as a matter of plot. Still, great movies, movies that make us think, always have a certain ambiguity at the point where the story splits in two, what I like to call the baseline plot layer and the symbolic layer. This is further compounded by the fact that in a movie such as Brazil, set in a bizarre, absurd world, and where the story itself incorporates fantasies and nightmares, the very notion of reality is slippery.
Consider a few vignettes that form a pattern. Sam dreams of being an angel and making love to a beautiful woman. He later meets a woman in real life who looks exactly like the woman in his recurring fantasy — which already suggests that she is a creature of his imagination. The second time Sam encounters Jill, in Mrs. Buttle’s apartment, he sees Jill’s reflection in a fragment of a shattered mirror, which is positioned at such an angle that Sam appears to be looking directly at it, but instead of seeing his own reflection, he sees Jill’s face. When he grabs the mirror, Jill disappears and he sees his own reflection.
Jill is Sam’s opposite. She is brave, empowered by her convictions, and articulate. She is brazenly outspoken in her contempt for the regime and combative towards government officials in her efforts to extricate Mr. Buttle. Sam, by contrast, is someone who has always chosen the path of the least resistance, going so far as to become part of the oppressive, tyrannical system. And in his dream, Sam must slay the evil samurai, who turns out to be Sam himself, in order to set Jill free and merge with her in the heavens.
All this suggests that within the movie’s symbolic layer, Jill represents Sam’s own idealized self, his deeply repressed conscience. (“Doesn’t it bother you, the things you do at Information Retrieval?” she asks.)
And another neat detail: the first time we see Jill, she is naked, sitting in a bath — a symbol of purification — filled with charcoal-gray water, the filth that she has just washed off. Sam, like everyone else in the Ministry, is always shown wearing a charcoal-gray suit.
And then there is another scene with Sam and Jill involving a mirror:
All this — including Sam fighting with Jill, who is possibly himself — means that Jill skirts pretty close to becoming a representation of guilt, as well, and Sam’s super-ego — the prosecutorial part of the psyche that demands perfection from the self. In post-Freudian art, the super-ego is usually represented by a scolding mother. And sure enough, Jill eventually appears dressed as Mrs. Lowry and speaking in her voice.
Roger Ebert, who did not like Brazil, took Gilliam to task for his “bizarre obsession with ducts”. Even the most positive reviews I’ve seen characterize the ducts primarily as a symbol of “technology gone wrong”. I find all this puzzling, because I think the significance of ducts is fairly obvious: the State is present everywhere and in a very substantial fashion. It is curious to see how the ducts disfigure even the most luxurious spaces, such as Mrs. Lowry’s palatial apartment and the upscale French restaurant where she and her friend are having lunch with Sam. The ducts are gray and massive, hanging so low they almost touch people’s heads. This clearly represents the oppressive role the Ministry of Information plays in every aspect of people’s lives. The ducts also connect every corner of the city to the Ministry and diverse spaces to each other, meaning everything and everyone is part of the information network.
The mobile home that Jill is towing away at the end of the story, with Sam inside it, is the only space in the movie that does not have ducts running through it. The interior of the house is obviously a prison cell, but the ducts are nowhere to be seen. This ties into Sam’s irreversible insanity as a result of torture: having gone mad, he is now a prisoner in his own broken mind, but on the upside, it’s the one place into which the Ministry cannot intrude. That’s why Mr. Helpmann says at the end “I think he got away from us” — Sam’s life may be destroyed, but at least he is beyond the Ministry’s reach. By going insane, Sam escapes his hopeless world in the only way possible, through madness.
If you understand the importance of ducts in this movie, you can understand why the Ministry is touchy about people not employed by Central Services messing with the duct work. (Here is a neat detail: although it’s Christmas, the ducts, despite being the ugliest part of any space, are not decorated — not a single garland wrapped around one anywhere, a testament to how strict the rules are that no one should touch the ducts, for any reason.) At first, the Ministry’s preoccupation with Harry Tuttle seems absurd, but people who know their way around ducts can intercept information and disrupt the Ministry’s business just as easily as fixing someone’s air conditioning. That’s why Central Services — which is either a Department in the Ministry of Information or an agency controlled by it — is the only organization permitted to work on the ducts. The Ministry is hunting down Harry Tuttle so that it can maintain this monopoly.
Everyone is obsessed with old music and movies, not just Sam. Old tunes are played on the radio, and old movies are shown on television. This is often taken to mean a certain nostalgia on the part of Sam and others for a more vibrant, “innocent” world, or just an aesthetic choice on the part of the director. I believe, however, that in the more immediate sense, this indicates an absence of creativity in Sam’s society. People listen to old music because there is no new music. People watch old movies over and over, because movies aren’t being made anymore. After all, this is a world in which any nail that sticks up is ruthlessly hammered down, and people universally prefer the comfort of repetition and conformity. It’s the reason why everyone gives everyone else the same present, wrapped in the same silver gift paper. It is also the reason why everyone is dressed like it’s the 1940’s — and even by 1940’s standards, no one is dressed truly fashionably; outfits are uniformly conservative and drab. The only one with pretensions at haute couture is Mrs. Lowry, and it’s only because she is Helpmann’s mistress. Sam lives in a culture that’s become mummified.
This absence of any creative impulse is also reflected in the movie’s technology. If you look closely, the world depicted in Brazil is quite technologically advanced. But, while the technical know-how is definitely there, there is little concern for aesthetics, convenience or efficiency. As with any real-life totalitarian regime, the system in Brazil abhors change, any kind of change, and conservatism is thus reflected in every aspect of life.
Brazil was released twenty-seven years ago. Today, we live in a world where Americans are subject to an unprecedented degree of surveillance by the government. (Go ahead, click on that link. If you think you are safe from warrantless spying because you are an all-American farmer from Idaho or a stereotypical Texan cowboy, and not some “Middle-Eastern”, think again.) When I read about the extent of routine warrantless surveillance, I have to wonder what the authorities do with all that information. Does anyone actually read all those billions of e-mails? Analyze them? Cross-reference them? After all, mere gathering of information is no substitute for actual human intelligence — and the more information you collect, the harder you make it for people in the law enforcement to use that information intelligently. Putting aside the moral and Constitutional implications of all this spying, collecting mountains of mostly useless information will probably make hunting terrorists harder, not easier — again, as a purely practical point. So you change the system; you put it on autopilot, where certain key words trigger an arrest, indefinite detention (with torture) and disappearance. And that’s how you get to a humble shoe salesman being dragged away on Christmas eve and tortured to death without a trial — for no reason other than a glitch in the system. We are not there yet, thankfully — but excessive surveillance is surely the first important step towards creating the kind of society that exists in Brazil.
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