Criterion DVD



Brazil (1985)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“It's about flights of fantasy. And the nightmare of reality. Terrorist bombings. And late night shopping. True Love. And creative plumbing.”

Yes, this film concerns itself with all the things mentioned in the tagline above and much more. Some of the other tag lines listed at IMDb for this movie: “It's only a state of mind.” “We're all in it together.” “Suspicion breeds confidence.” and especially ”Have a laugh at the horror of things to come.” hint about what awaits the viewer. I believe this film, Terry Gilliam's masterwork, knows no equal for its insight into the still evolving flux of our increasingly authoritarian world.

The story in the film centers around Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a civil servant in the government of an unnamed English-speaking country (seemingly an alternate reality UK). However, after the camera zooms through some clouds, text establishes the time (8:49 PM) and locale: “somewhere in the 20th century,” while the soundtrack introduces the movie's theme: “Brazil” -- which never leaves the musical accompaniment for long. The movie fittingly opens with a sample of the society's ambient culture by showing a television commercial, for ducts, from a “company” named Central Services. As the TV spokesman rattles off his spiel for ducts, the camera backs away allowing the viewer to see that the television sits in a store display window among other extremely similar models all showing the duct commercial. Shortly after the camera shows “Merry Christmas” salutations in among the TV models, a man pushing a shopping cart passes the display and the window erupts in an explosion: showering fire and glass.

Miraculously, in the fiery debris, one of the televisions seems to still function. As the camera focuses on the still working TV screen, we see a news interview with a government official. The interviewer asks the Ministry of Information's Deputy Minister Eugene Helpmann (Peter Vaughan) what he believes lies behind the “recent increase in terrorist bombings." Deputy Minister Helpmann replies: “Bad Sportsmanship.” He goes on to give the government's propaganda line in more detail.

Beside establishing the authoritarian nature of the film's society and the evidence of some sort of resistance movement, this small opening scene also introduces another ever-present theme of the movie: “retro-technology.” However, “retro” really doesn't well describe the technology shown in this movie. I don't recall ever seeing a television or telephones (which make their appearance later) quite like the ones in this film. Nor do I recall living in a culture with such an overriding emphasis on ducts, which becomes more apparent as the film progresses. I saw this movie in the theater when it was released. The society depicted in this film does not match with my memories of 1985. However, increasingly this film's world seems to become strangely congruent with our present day world in many aspects.

During the Deputy Minister's TV interview the scene switches to the office of another bureaucrat who watches on a very small office display (more “retro” technology) while Mr. Helpmann talks of “information retrieval charges”  (reducing the newspeak: billing the torturee for his torture). The unnamed office dweller kills a flying roach or beetle of some sort, which falls from the ceiling into the workings of archaic printing equipment also in the office, causing an error on a printout -- a name: Tuttle, becomes Buttle. As the bureaucrat resumes his seat in front of the poster on his wall which proclaims: “Loose talk is noose talk,” the televised interview reaches its absurd conclusion. The printout error has occurred on a Ministry of Information, Dept of Information Retrieval order for a subject of detention and interrogation. Apparently a Mr. Buttle may mistakenly receive government treatment actually intended for Mr. Tuttle.

The scene changes to a different television screen which catches the end of the Helpmann interview. This slightly larger television screen sits amid Christmas decorations in a private residence where a mother reads Dickens' Christmas Carol to her daughter, while her son plays with some action figures and a fairly realistic toy battle rifle. The apparent father of this family wraps a Christmas present.

In the flat above, a young woman -- later identified as Jill Layton (Kim Greist) -- bathes while watching a Marx Brother's movie. She hears noises in another room of her flat and asks “Who's there?” The camera switches back to the family below as a circular hole appears in their ceiling. In seconds, a fully equipped SWAT team enters their apartment through the ceiling hole, windows and via the door, which they knock down. Their distorted voices mouth incoherent orders as they gather the family members together and encase the father in a zippered, belted and clamped straight-jacket-like garment. A man in a business suit and glasses reads a “council order” document to Mr. Buttle who can only respond with muffled noises. The suited man requests Mrs. Buttle to sign a document. It seems unlikely that withholding her signature would actually matter, but she signs the “receipt.” As the SWAT team and their “leader” leave with Mr. Buttle, the young woman in the flat above asks Mrs. Buttle “Are you okay?” through the hole in the ceiling/floor.

That small taste, which only takes six minutes from the beginning of this two hour and twenty minute film, gives the flavor of this tremendously insightful movie. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) becomes involved with the Buttle affair through his work at the Department of Records. His boss, Mr. M. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), relies on Sam for many tasks. Dealing with a “refund” for Mrs. Buttle becomes one of those tasks. In the process of delivering the “refund,” Sam sees Jill, who has taken on the task of seeking some kind of justice from the government for the false arrest of Mr. Buttle. In pursuing those efforts her path will cross Sam's several times. Sam also encounters the “outlaw” Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) and takes his part against Central Services represented by Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and his sidekick. Sam's mother (Katherine Helmond) and friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin) worry that Sam has neglected his career and attempt to boost his standing in the bureaucracy. However, Sam seems only interested in pursuing his dream girl: Jill.

Sound confusing? The way Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame in addition to other directorial successes) directs this masterpiece, the complex plot lines don't confuse. Instead, they highlight the absurdity of modern life, the insanely Byzantine structure of institutional bureaucracy and the distorting influences on society of an increasingly authoritarian State. Those distortions include: an Orwellian shift in language usage, the “retro” technology mentioned earlier, increased institutional violence and “terrorism” in the form of violent resistance.

Like our own world, the society depicted in this film has lost -- and seems in the process of losing -- many of the things which make life worth living. However, unlike 1984, this film doesn't become overwhelmingly depressing. Gilliam and his other screen writers: Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown (who appears in the film as Harvey Lime) had a very accurate, but still comedic, vision of the horrors the State holds for all of us. Perhaps, if more people see films like this one, we can avoid the full measure of State terror which looms ahead. With both that hope and the brilliance of this movie's direction, script and performances in mind, I give Brazil my highest recommendation.

Criterion Box Set (3 DVD)

Criterion 3 Disc

Soundtrack CD