Brazil; 1985s dystopian nightmare is probably the greatest film ever made featuring ductwork and air vents as major plot devices. These tubes clutter up the homes and lives of characters in Terry Gilliams fantasy in a calculated manner: working class family homes are overrun with ducts; classy restaurants and shops have them spewing air through; and radical repairmen escape through them. In this universe even unlicensed repairing of air vents is considered a terrorist act. Film critics have gone to great lengths to explain the symbolism of the air vents in Brazil. Perhaps it signifies the overriding power that Brazil’s monolithic state has over people’s lives, hence their conspicuous absence in the terrifyingly bleak halls of the Ministry of Information. This is a Ministry accountable to no one.
Part Brave New World, part 1984, part 12 Monkeys, and entirely, glaringly, Terry Gilliam, Brazil is 132 minutes in which the audience’s fears are mirrored back at them in a style Gilliam conceived especially “retro future”. Gilliam has since specified that the film is not supposed to be a warning about the future, more of an alternative present in which nightmarish bureaucracy and shallow consumerism are starkly familiar to viewers lost amongst the Christmas lights and buildings that block out the sunlight. The most disturbing elements of this iconic film seem to be the ease with which a highly authoritarian government looms over a society obsessed with plastic surgery and shopping, accompanied by the apparent ambivalence of most of the characters towards this, to the extent that the hero and heroine, Sam and Jill, become the despairing voices of sanity amongst the vacuousness of their society. The style of the film is deliberately constructed to remind us that it is not the future: the bizarre computers in black and white with magnifying mirrors resemble no desktop computer ever; and the 1940’s dress code and the soothing radio broadcasts following terrorist bombings. Instead the scenes seems constantly cluttered and inefficient, where old films and singing telegrams take the place of any meaning in citizens lives.
The film follows Sam Lowry, a disillusioned bureaucrat who is charged with delivering compensation to a family whose father has been arrested and tortured to death “during questioning”, after bureaucratic error in which a dead fly falls into the copy machine and ‘Archibald Tuttle’ becomes ‘Archibald Buttle’. Well aware of his own impotence, Lowry has long since retreated into daydreams to deal with everyday life. In his mind he is a warrior with angel wings who flies amongst clouds and blue sky well above the grey city of his everyday. He fantasises frequently about saving a beautiful woman and flying with her to freedom. Imagine the surprise, then, when it turns out said beautiful woman lives just above the family to whom he is trying to deliver a cheque (more specifically a “refund for your husband madam”). Also she’s furious with him, not just because of the injustice of the situation but also because the police carved a hole in her floor during the arrest, and show no sign of wanting to repair it. Jill has been trying to track down Mr Buttle but is frustrated at every turn; in turning up at the Ministry office she is fed into a catch 22 loop in which she can’t get the information she requests without the right stamp. She can’t get the stamp until the information request form is complete. Worse, her investigations mean she is now placed on a list of suspected terrorists. In order to find out more about Jill, Sam takes the dreaded, unwanted promotion that his high-society mother has set up for him at the Ministry of Retrieval (the name refers to ‘retrieval’ of terrorist suspects as they are violently arrested and imprisoned without trial). The Ministries in this work are reminiscent of Orwell’s Ministries in 1984; towering concrete blocks that impose physically as well as psychologically in the lives of citizens. Innovative camera work pulls us through endless corridors to Lowry’s new office with a desk he shares with someone through the partitioning wall. Immediately abusing his position to track down Jill, he realises how much danger she is in and changes her records to make her appear deceased.
This is a universe wherein restaurants and shopping centres are bombed yet people continue chatting blandly as their waiter lies screaming in the corner. Jill’s concern for her neighbours is enough to land her on the wanted list, and Sam’s obsession with Jill leads him to commit the unthinkable in adjusting ministry records. In fact, the emotions of empathy and grief have been so sidelined that showing acting upon these feelings is enough to get categorised as a potential terrorist. Jill and Sam are also remarkable in acknowledging how twisted their own society is and yet they are utterly powerless against it. As the film progresses and it becomes harder and harder to distinguish reality from daydream we have the impression that Sam and Jill are the only sane people in a vast asylum, screaming desperately into the void that has consumed everyone else.
The title ‘Brazil’, rather than having anything to do with the film directly, was instead chosen in order to reflect Sam’s need to drift off into an escapist fantasy to deal with his reality. But rather than allowing his characters an escape, Gilliam is merciless. When Sam confronts Jill over her possible involvement in a terrorist incident he suggests that they run away somewhere else. “THERE IS NOWHERE ELSE!”, she replies angrily, and continues driving past the miles and miles of advertising billboards that block the view of the road from farmland. Later we are led to believe that the couple have truly escaped, with the help of maverick air duct repairman Archibald Tuttle, and it turns out that it is but a mere fantasy in the head of Sam who has been sent mad after being tortured by his friend Jack Lint. The ending, disappointing to say the very least, ended up with Gilliam coming close to declaring all-out war against Universal Studios who were responsible for the film’s release in the US. Universal originally cut the film so that the ending was a happy one, with Jill and Sam living happily ever after. On the film’s release it was so unpopular that people actually walked out of cinemas.
One of the enduring appeals of this film is the incredible cast. Jonathan Pryce as a disorientated Sam Lowry and Katherine Helmond as his plastic surgery addicted mother, Robert de Niro as the ridiculously heroic Archibald Tuttle, Michael Palin as Jack Lint, Sam’s old friend and eventual torturer, as well as Peter Vaughan as the banally evil Mr Helpmann whose on-screen presence is so soothing and grandfatherly that we forget he is responsible for thousands of deaths.
Whilst not a major hit on its release Brazil has become a classic, possibly as elements of the film becomes ever more realistic. The retro-future style has also become a huge cultural influence for the Steampunk which has become ever more prevalent in popular culture in recent years. If you’re looking for a cult classic, like sci-fi without the science or just feel like plunging yourself into a satirical nightmare then be sure to check out this adventure into the bizarre. Just don’t touch the ducts.