Brazil: Gilliam’s Still-Searing Vision of the Future

The past decade has been crowded with dystopian sci-fi visions, from THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Mainstream moviegoers are used to imagining doomy futures; it’s gotten to the point that when yet another movie trailer quickly sketches a deeply dysfunctional society and introduces yet another hero who plans to stand against it, some viewers might find themselves tuning out. Thus, one might expect that those returning to 1985’s Brazil after all this time might not find it quite as chilling as they may have before humankind’s miserable future became such routine popcorn fare.

Fortunately, however, BRAZIL remains a visual marvel: director Terry Gilliam realizes a wholly convincing yet deliciously stylized world, one that’s still breathtaking over thirty years later. Gilliam goes for a self-consciously retro look that gives BRAZIL a timeless quality. The claustrophobic urban landscape where we meet our nominal hero, a minor bureaucrat named Sam Lowry, has much of the towering, Art Deco grandeur of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, and many props have a deliberate analog charm: my favorite may be the film’s version of personal computers, which Gilliam imagines as manual typewriters with little TV screens attached. Yet while Gilliam’s vision is immersive and at times dazzling, the details can be vividly depressing: Lowry lives in a tiny apartment papered with posters of long-dead movie stars and finds himself in an even tinier office after receiving a promotion; a fancy restaurant serves unrecognizable globs of food with accompanying photos of what each glob is supposed to taste like.

Lowry’s day-to-day reality is one of dissatisfaction: he has a hectoring mother, an ineffectual boss, and few prospects for happiness beyond escape into daydreams. Where other films of its ilk might breathlessly offer us exposition regarding exactly how the future ended up in such a state, BRAZIL uses the disconnect between Lowry’s cramped real life and expansive daydreams to tell us what we really need to know. The film is perhaps an even greater visual wonder when it offers us glimpses of Lowry’s dreams: winged and wearing gleaming armor, he soars to the rescue of a damsel in distress trapped in a transparent, hovering prison. These sequences have aged beautifully and offer a sense of boundlessness that is the perfect counterpoint to Lowry’s repressive daily life and the powerlessness that he and most of his fellow citizens experience in their heavily bureaucratic and totalitarian society.

Indeed, beyond the film’s visual appeal, its social criticisms remain disturbingly apt, perhaps having only gained relevance as time has passed. BRAZIL imagines a society where government surveillance is intense, and propaganda posters bear slogans like, “Suspicion breeds confidence” and “Don’t suspect a friend, report him.” Much of the film’s action has to do with the fallout from a clerical error that leads to the capture – and eventual death by torture – of an unassuming citizen named Archibald Buttle. The government justifies the surveillance and torture of its own citizens in the name of preventing terrorism, an element that makes the film feel prescient in the context of our own recent history of terrorist fears, government-sponsored torture, and encroachments on individual privacy.

Though less immediately startling than the film’s concerns with surveillance, terrorism, and torture, Lowry’s escapist streak also has a powerful resonance for modern viewers. While many of us (myself included) might feel more inclined to identify with Lowry because of his Walter Mitty tendencies and his love of movies – both suggesting his desire for a bigger, freer, and more romantic life – we should also remember the film’s implication that Lowry has been complacent for years and years prior to the start of the film. Resigned to his narrow existence and a bureaucratic job in the service of the totalitarian regime, Lowry has escaped into entertainment and his own head rather than face hard truths about the society that he lives in and his part in keeping it functioning in the same oppressive fashion. In our own reality, advances in technology have made it easier than ever for us to retreat into our own little worlds and an endless stream of entertainment. In the era of Netflix and YouTube, one can’t help but laugh with recognition at the scene where bureaucratic drones switch the screens of their work computers over to an old western – it doesn’t feel like science fiction at all. It’s important, then, that we consider BRAZIL a warning not just against totalitarianism but also against a very human impulse to hide from difficult truths.

To wit: the film takes its title from “Brazil,” an oft-recorded song written by Brazilian composer Ary Barroso, which surfaces several times throughout the story, perhaps most tellingly when Lowry guides his radio dial away from a report about terrorism and listens to the song instead. It becomes an anthem of escapism for Lowry, and by the end of the film, it has taken on a haunting quality. Knowing that Barroso composed the song in 1939, a time when Brazil itself was under dictatorship as well as the year that marked the beginning of World War II, only makes the choice of song feel more fitting, and its promises of an idyllic escape feel more illusory.

BRAZIL’s brutal ending is legendary, as is Gilliam’s battle to preserve it against the studio’s wishes, and that ending is one of the major factors that has prevented the film’s pointed social and political commentary from being blunted over time. The oft-decried, studio-mandated “Love Conquers All” ending would have made Gilliam’s film just another escapist entertainment, one that squared too neatly with Lowry’s daydreams. Gilliam’s point was not that dreams come true, but rather that nightmares do, especially when people are too frightened to react, or too preoccupied to care.





Victoria Large is a Massachusetts-based writer who has also contributed to Bright Lights Film Journal and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.
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