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Escape to Happiness and Insanity: Gilliam’s Brazil

Brazil is a mess of a movie in the best possible way. Terry Gilliam’s creation is wildly original and incredibly chaotic, blending elements of comedy and drama into an unforgettable piece of cinema. Visually extravagant and thematically dense, Brazil rewards observant and repeat viewers with a barrage of imagery and subtext ripe for speculation and analysis. A story with almost too much to say, I regard Brazil as one of the most memorable explorations into the absurdities and perils of modern society, and worthy of becoming an Ekostory.

Synopsis

Sam Lowry is a low-level government technocrat living in a semi-futuristic society. While seemingly content in his everyday life, he constantly dreams of another world where he can fly away and spend eternity with the woman of his dreams. While attempting to redress the wrongful death of an innocent man caused by bureaucratic ineptitude, Lowry encounters and becomes infatuated with someone who resembles his dream woman. As fantasy seeps into reality, he throws away everything in his life in order to pursue her, but is ultimately captured and punished by the system for his disruptive behaviour.  The movie concludes with him finding the way to eternal happiness: through insanity.

Not Your Average Dystopia

Brazil Ministry of Information

Comparisons of Brazil to other dystopian futures, especially to George Orwell’s 1984, are inevitable. But unlike its darker and more sinister counterpart, the world of Brazil borders more on the absurd and comical. This is a society that barely functions, hampered at every turn by gross incompetence and inefficiencies. Examples of broken systems are scattered throughout the film: elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions that don’t work; typos in paperwork that lead to wrongful arrests and interrogations; utterly incompetent workers who are only proficient at shifting blame and responsibility onto others. Terry Gilliam expressed that Brazil is a story rooted in his own experiences of working in a deeply dysfunctional system:

It’s all about my own frustrations and my seeming inability to achieve what I wanted to achieve and my inability to affect a system that is clearly wrong. The fears of BRAZIL are not so much that the world is spinning out of control because of the system, because the system is us. What BRAZIL is really about is that the system isn’t great leaders, great machinating people controlling it all. It’s each person performing their job as one little cog in this thing and Sam chooses to stay a little cog and ultimately he pays the price for that.

Terry Gilliam

The end result is the depiction of a society we can’t help but laugh at. But at the same time, there are kernels of truth embedded within the parodies. GD Falksen over at Tor.com has this to say about this unsettling fact:

What makes Brazil so terrifying (arguably the most terrifying dystopian film ever made) is that it strikes so close to home. The world of Brazil is the logical progression of our own society’s worst and most absurd features. When we watch the film we can see facets of modern bureaucratic, consumerist life shining through, reminding us that as much as we cling to office life, paperwork, reasonable order and polite society to save us from chaos and discomfort, they become the same pit of irrationality that we desperately hope to escape.

The Nightmare of the Absurd: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

Convoluted and unnecessary technologies, criminal miscarriages of justice, people who seem productive but actually contribute nothing meaningful – these elements are all too real in the real world. Brazil’s satirical nature reminds us the absurdities we encounter in everyday life, and how difficult it is to affect change when we are within dysfunctional systems.

The Illusion of Choice and Freedom

“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. Hurry now, while stocks last, to your nearest Central Services showroom. Designer colors to suit your demanding tastes.”

– TV Ad from Brazil

One of the recurring and omnipresent pieces of imagery in the film is the duct. They are everywhere – in the homes of both the rich and the poor, in offices, in government buildings. They represent the tendrils of the oppressive totalitarian regime that seeks to control society at every level. Choice exists only in the most superficial sense. One can pick the colour of the ducts, but only Central Services, an arm of the government, is authorized to service them. Anyone else that tampers with them, and by extension the government, is branded a terrorist. The ducts are a constant reminder that the world of Brazil is not a free society.

Without the freedom to choose their government, the people of Brazil invest their energies to choose as consumers. But in the restaurant scene, we see that this choice is also an illusion. The server asks each guest to pick between different options on the menu. When the dishes arrive, they all consist of the same unappealing scoops of green mush, resembling nothing like the meal depicted on the menu.

Gilliam Brazil Green Mush

This scene actually reminds me of the current industrial food system in North America. Most of the processed food we consume is in reality derived from a limited selection of feedstocks. Despite having tens of thousands of processed food products to choose from at the supermarket, genuine diversity is illusory. Instead of Brazil’s green mush, we have corn from the North American midwest. Like the people in the restaurant, most of us accept this complacently.

Gilliam Brazil extreme consumerism

The movie also explores the logical extreme of rampant and senseless materialism. Consumerism in Brazil has literally evolved into a religion; disciples for Consumers for Christ parade around in the shopping mall to proselytize their message. A child asks Santa Claus for a credit card for Christmas. Even death is commoditized in this warped world; Mrs. Terrain’s gelatinized corpse (a casualty of competitive cosmetic surgery) is seen gift-wrapped in the fuchsia pink coffin. My favourite example of senseless consumerism has to be the recurring exchange of a mass-manufactured decision maker, marketed as “something for an executive”. It hammers home the absurdity of buying and giving gifts that nobody wants or needs, but is bought for the sake of being bought. How often does that happen every holiday season?

The Dehumanization of People

Gilliam Brazil torture log

Another recurring theme of Brazil deals with the dehumanizing effects of technology and bureaucracy on society. From the very beginning, we see that these people are not normal human beings. Police officers have no qualms destroying an apartment building to arrest one man. The secretary cheerfully transcribes away the screams of interrogation victims. Most people show little to no empathy towards fellow human beings. The world of Brazil is inhabited by borderline sociopaths.

Gilliam Brazil sociopaths

What is particularly intriguing about Brazil is that the protagonist is also a tragic product of his society. Sam Lowry is not depicted as the traditional hero who acts because he recognizes the truth of an unjust system. Instead, his actions are entirely self-serving, from wanting to be left alone by his bothersome mother and needing his air-conditioning fixed, to tracking down his fantasy woman in real life. We see that while he is a capable and relatively well-adjusted individual, he exhibits many of the sociopathic qualities of his fellow citizens. He continues to eat his mush after a terrorist bombing at the restaurant leaves others dead and dying. Like the other technocrats on the tram on his way home, he doesn’t give a second thought to offer his seat to a one-legged woman. He attempts to uncomfortably hide behind the “not my department and not my fault” excuse to minimize personal interaction with a woman who has just lost her husband to a wrongful arrest. He even barely regards her dream woman, Jill, as a human being, consistently ignoring her opinions and never seeking to understand her as a person.

Gilliam Brazil Sam uncomfortable

This all serves to illustrate that in a society where human connections are stymied, even the best and brightest can grow to become emotionally stunted individuals, incapable of empathy and compassion. In the world of Brazil, technology and bureaucracy go hand-in-hand to mould people into isolated cogs for a dysfunctional system. In a society devoid of real connections, the people wither. This leads to a third theme of the movie: The unceasing desire for escape.

Questions:

  • Does modern technology have a dehumanizing effect on us?
  • Are modern technologies fundamentally different from technologies from the past?
  • What does meaningful human interaction entail?

 Where Fantasy Meets Reality

A third major theme of Brazil is escapism. Indeed, the main recurring song that the film is named after, Aquarela do Brasil, was actually chosen for that very reason:

“Port Talbot is a steel town, where everything is covered with gray iron ore dust.  Even the beach is completely littered with dust, it’s just black.  The sun was setting, and it was quite beautiful.  The contrast was extraordinary, I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in these strange Latin escapist songs like ‘Brazil.’  The music transported him somehow and made his world less gray.”

– Terry Gilliam

People are constantly seeking escape from their existence in this dreary paper-filled world. My favourite example occurs early on in the movie. Instead of working, everyone in the Department of Records watched old movies, only pretending to work when the boss emerges from his office.

Sam escapes the tedium of his life through his recurring dreams, flying off with metal wings to meet his dream woman, slaying monsters and samurai. As time goes on, Sam’s fantasies begin to seep into the real world. Such was his unconscious desire for something more than his life that a single tenuous connection between his fantasy and the real world (a woman who happens to look like the one in his dreams) causes him to abandon everything in pursuit of it.  His daydreams shifts from wishful thinking to irresponsible actions, leading to dire consequences. Sam’s motivations are naive, and his actions ultimately proved destructive to not only himself, but to Jill as well. The dark conclusion has him finding contentment in insanity as he escapes into a permanent daydream.

Gilliam Brazil Insane

Brazil reminds us that while occasional escapism is perfectly healthy, we must have something or someone meaningful in our lives to ground us. I am reminded of one particular quote that treats the need for constant escapism as a symptom of a greater problem:

“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life that you don’t need to escape from.”

– Author Seth Godin

Hopefully in the real world, we are able to find purpose and forge relationships that ground us. For Sam, that was impossible given the society he lived in. But for us, the cultivation of a joyful life is something we can strive for. Last week’s exploration of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden spoke about heaven being “under our feet as well as over our heads.” Can we find ways to be happy and sustainable within our daily lives?

Summary

Terry Gilliam Brazil

Despite exploring many important social and moral issues, Brazil never feels preachy; perhaps it is because the film doesn’t really have one coherent message. Instead, Gilliam has so many things to say about the state of modern society, of capitalism and socialism, of industrialization and technology, of disconnectedness and injustice and plastic surgeries and incompetence that the viewer can’t help but be left overwhelmed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Decades after its release, the ideas and themes found within Brazil have become more relevant than ever before.

Next Up: A Studio Ghibli classic you’ve probably never seen.

Related Ekostories:

Reference

Cowen, David S. (1996). Brazil (Movie, 1985) Frequently Asked Questions V 1.3. Retrieved from http://www.faqs.org/faqs/movies/brazil-faq/

Falksen, GD. (2011) The Nightmare of the Absurd: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Retrieved from http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/04/the-nightmare-of-the-absurd-terry-gilliams-brazil.

Images of Brazil © 1985 Criterion. All rights reserved.

6 Comments

  1. Isaac this movie must be in the “air” again. I was talking to a friend about it recently who had never heard of this film. I remember being shocked and amazed by the total absurdity of this world and its foreshadowing of our own situation. I wonder if it seems more relevant now twenty plus years later?

    • I have thought about this a lot, and I believe the film is definitely more relatable now than ever before, especially getting occasional glimpses into how corrupt and dysfunctional our political and economic systems are. But the machines are resilient in maintaining the status quo and resisting change…

  2. Pingback: Not Your Average Dystopia – philosophy of Technology S2016

  3. Urbania says

    Brazil is a film that she be watched by everyone at least once. I did not like the film until reading the analysis of it. My critisism was like the movie ‘Blazing Saddles’. Sam at one point mimics Woody Woodpecker, I think because his character fails to cut the tree at the root but instead, carves out a hole to ‘whole’ up in. He ends holed uo because his mind is destroyed. The thought police win in the end.

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