Retro Review: Brazil

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writer: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown

Composer: Michael Kamon
Starring: Jonathon Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin
Genre: Science Fiction/Comedy
Rating: R

“I’m sorry, but I’m a bit of a stickler for paper work.” These are the terrifying words of Bob Hoskin’s repairman character in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. If any words summerize the quiet horror that his Gilliam’s vision of a totalitarian society, it’s these.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Several depictions of blood and explosions, characters are tortured offscreen.

Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout, frequent use of f*** and s***.

Drug/Alcohol References: Scenes of drinking and smoking.

Sexual Content: A partially clothed woman is implied to have had relations with a male character, some references to sexuality.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Content: Dark materialistic ideas that lead to hopeless themes.

Positive Content: Strong, moralistic depiction of defiance against corruption and oppression.


In George Orwell’s 1984, the image of the all-powerful omnipotent state was summarized with a very famous quote, “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” It’s a perfect summary of the nature of totalitarian power: eternal, horrific, and unstoppable. It’s appropriate in Terry Gilliam’s first masterpiece and dystopian film that he borrows so heavily from Orwell to craft his own unique cynical vision of the future. As one would expect from a former Monty Python veteran, the snide original title of the film was 1984 and a Half. Its vision of the future is utterly different though. Instead of the boot stamping on a human face forever, we have a boot stamping on the wrong human face and writing it off as a clerical error.

It’s fascinating that Terry Gilliam’s unique vision of the future would be so bleak. The one time Monty Python animator has always had a taste for the absurd but here his anti-authoritarian anxieties are given a voice for the first time. Up until this point, his filmography explored more lighthearted fare with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, and Time Bandits. In those films, he had his laugh at authoritarian bullies, corrupt religions, and superstition. Brazil was an ambitious change into a new series of ideas on a scale of ambition few directors ever have the chance to play with. Here Terry Gilliam is completely in his element.

Brazil‘s future is that of obfuscation. Despite being an authoritarian bureaucratic state that writes off its mistakes with government checks, the people hardly notice. They regularly drown themselves in movies, plastic surgery, holiday festivities, and all manner of bread and circuses. The population as we meet them are totally distracted at all times. This naturally serves the system well. In the film’s brutally painful opening sequence, a clerical error results in an innocent family being assaulted with a SWAT team before their father is carted off to a torture chamber under the assumption that he’s a “terrorist.”

At the same time, we see the life of a low-level government bureaucrat named Sam Lowry (Jonathon Pryce) who finds himself the only person who can resolve the clerical error that resulted in the family’s father’s untimely demise. His department isn’t responsible for the error but all the departments are quaking under the fear that they might be responsible and deflect at every opportunity. Sam’s dreams are those of movies. Movies are a huge motif in the film as we see the dozens of clerics quickly give up on work the moment the watchful eyes of their boss stops looking. Sam dreams of superheroes and samurai sword fights where he flies over mountains and does battle with faceless evils.

In real life though he’s faced with nothing but the aformentioned obfuscation. His mother has friends in the system and can help him get a massive promotion whenever he wants one but his ambitions aren’t found in his work. His dreams are of escaping the system althogether. For lack of that, he’d rather stay in his comfortable department. His life becomes more choatic however when he starts seeing a woman who appeared in his dreams at random times.

Offered with this chance to puruse a semblence of his dreams, he begins to dig deeper and deeper into the system he helps run as a means to track the woman down so he can tell her how he feels. Along the way, he’s treated to excursions involving a rogue terrorist repairman who is wanted for committing the crime of circumventing Central Authority’s proper repair services and fixing problems too quickly through non-official means.

Ventilation is a fascinating visual motif in the film. Every set is lined with throbbing, awkward, and ugly ventilation shafts that barrel through every room. It’s a powerful visual motif that seems to suggest this universe is already deeply used to ugly impediments to their daily lives as long as it can be blocked off. Another motif we see used at multiple times is blinders. On several occasions, we see methods of technology that only exist to block the view of ugly events happening around them.

In one famous scene, a restaurant is hit by a terrorist attack that kills several patrons. Instead of evacuating the restaurant, the waiters quickly place several hasty dividers so the surviving patrons can go on with their dinner undisturbed by ugly sights. Injustice permeates the very walls of this society but the people don’t mind it if they don’t have to look at it.

In the end, the system is too overwhelming. Gilliam cynically predicts that at the end of the day the only way to escape the system is to go mad and imagine yourself escaping it. Gilliam is an atheist. He doesn’t believe in some sort of utopia at the end of the tunnel. He’s quite honest with is a vision that humanity without transcendental hope is doomed to degenerate into authoritarianism and decline. He’s subsequently elaborated on many of these themes and ideas further in his 2013 spiritual successor film Zero Theorem, which plays with much of the same dystopian vision of the future with the added benefit of the internet. As a Christian, I appreciate his vision of a flawed humanity nonetheless. Whatever can be said of Gilliam, he’s a brutally honest artist as he sees it.

As powerful as this cynical vision of futurism is, maybe the most powerful story Gilliam tells with the movie is merely that it exists at all. The film became the subject of a massive scandal with its American distributor Universal. When they presented him their desire to cut out the film’s dark ending in favor of a happy ending, Gilliam proceeded to run a massive subterfuge campaign against them. He took out ads in film magazines asking the studio why they hadn’t released his film yet, he screened cuts of it to film schools, and managed to build so much buzz around the film that it started receiving awards before it was even released. The studio relented. His original vision was screened and jetisoned him into international critical acclaim as a director.

It’s fascinating that there’s tension between the films’ conclusion about life and Terry Gilliam’s own success with the film. Brazil is a film about the heights and absurdities of the world crashing down around you and destroying everything beautiful in the world. Gilliam would face multiple instances of failure in his career such as he did with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. He would have many successes especially in the decade after Brazil but his career would forever be defined as an uphill slope wherein the talented visionary would be repeatedly crushed by his ambition, the limitations of the people around him, the limited patience of the studio system, and the stubborn universe itself which robbed him of fair circumstances to thrive in.

Maybe in a sense Brazil is autobiographical and he’s already gone insane fighting the unwinnable system. In any case, films like Brazil show us the man that Terry Gilliam truly is. He’s fiercely creative, cynical, angry and defiant. He’s nothing short of a great artist.



The Bottom Line


Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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