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Brazil Movie Analysis Essay

What Does This Movie Mean? Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985)

Another entry on movie interpretation. If you haven’t seen Brazil, are planning to see it, and do not want the experience ruined for you, do not read past the jump. This essay is geared towards people who have seen the movie. Major plot points will be revealed, and minor plot points too. Proceed at your own risk.

You know, this entry sat almost complete for several months because I just couldn’t think of an introduction. How to summarize Brazil? I never really wanted to make movies, but this is one of those films that make me really envious of filmmakers. Here is an opportunity to put all your crazy, weird, possibly teenage, fantasies to celluloid. Brazil is like steampunk, except with mid-twentieth-century technology. If there was an ipad in it, it would probably have wheels and run off a tank of diesel. Everyone is dressed like it’s 1943. Against this bizarre backdrop, a simple — but then again, not so simple — story of one man’s and one woman’s (or, possibly, one man who is represented both as a man and a woman) struggle against a psychotic totalitarian government takes place. I am sorry, but this is the simplest I can put it.


1. Synopsis
2. Why is the movie called Brazil?

3. If the rebels are against the tyrannical Ministry of Information, why are they killing all those innocent people?

4. What’s real and what isn’t?
5. What is the significance of ducts?
6. Why does the Ministry of Information hunt down freelance heating engineers?
7. Why is Sam obsessed with old movies and music?
8. Lesson for today (and every day)

1. Synopsis

The movie is set in a fictional world that seems to be inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. It is a jumble of soulless concrete towers, whose inhabitants dress in 1940’s fashions, ruled over by a “Ministry of Information”, a ruthless organization that does not seem to promote any kind of ideology, other than unquestioning obedience to itself. As the name implies, the Ministry is obsessed with possessing information about everyone and everything, and employs a massive centralized bureaucracy to manage its never-ending tzunami of paperwork. The most distinctive visual feature of the world portrayed in Brazil is a convoluted system of grey ducts, mostly for conveying paper, which invade every room and every office.

Sam Lowry is a clerk in Records, the lowliest department within the Ministry. He is happy (if one can use that word) with his dead-end, undemanding job and has no ambition for career advancement, much to the consternation of his wealthy, glamorous, power-hungry mother. Periodically, Sam escapes into a recurring dream, in which he is an angel, flying high above the chaos of his world, battling demons to free a beautiful blond woman imprisoned in a cage, and finally making love to her. Three events occur that shake up Sam’s contented existence and set him on a collision course with the all-powerful Ministry: (1) he meets, literally, the woman of his dreams; (2) the heating system in his apartment breaks down; and (3) he decides to hand-deliver a “refund check” for a “Mr. Buttle”, a man mistakenly grabbed and tortured to death by the Ministry as a result of a typographical error. The convergence of these three events cause Sam to accept a promotion to Information Retrieval (a euphemistic name for a department that deals with interrogation and torture), where he abuses his position, first, to locate the woman he is obsessed with and second, to ensure her safety from his colleagues.

2. Why is the movie called “Brazil”?

The title is a reference to a 1939 song “Aquarela do Brasil”, that’s often playing in the background and that Sam likes to hum. But why, of all the retro references, is this one picked for the title? Why not “Casablanca” or “The Wild West”?

I have to be careful not to read too much into it. A movie’s title is usually chosen quite late in the movie-making process and isn’t part of the overall symbolic framework. Still, the title of Brazil strikes me as kind of an in-movie joke. Jill — the woman with whom Sam is in love — mentions that there is nowhere to go to escape. This suggests that the rest of the world, including Brazil, has either been destroyed, or overtaken by the Ministry, or so completely off-limits that it may as well not exist. It endures only in song, as a fantasy of escape — and isn’t Rio the top destination for movie characters fleeing from the law? So too, in relation to the viewer, the world depicted in the movie is a kind of Brazil of its own — foreign, completely unrealistic, and a place for our imagination to escape to.

Another interesting piece of trivia: Brasil is a phantom island in Irish mythology, that is said to be always cloaked by mist. Brasil becomes visible for only one day every seven years, but even on such a day, it is still unreachable.

3. If the rebels are against the tyrannical Ministry of Information, why are they killing all those innocent people?

In any society, one will invariably find that even the bitterest political antagonists share certain baseline values. This is not meant to endorse the facile idea that all sides in a conflict are the same, only to point out that wildly divergent ideas can be embraced, somewhat paradoxically, by people who hail from similar environments and perceive certain things in very similar ways. Terrorism is a cultural phenomenon as well as a political one. A society’s perception of terrorism as an acceptable form of political expression — or, by contrast, its complete rejection of terrorism — is tied to perhaps the most fundamental concept in any culture, the value of human life.

In Brazil, we are constantly shown that the culture of that society does not value individual human life at all. This is a world where people are grabbed, tortured and killed without a trial all the time; in fact, the legal system, as such, doesn’t even exist — and people generally don’t seem to mind this. (For instance, Mrs. Buttle’s rage over the death of her husband stems from the fact that “he was good”, not that he was “completed” without even a chance to learn what the charges are or to present a defense.)

The movie begins with a bizarre interview of Mr. Helpmann, who characterizes the terrorists as bitter losers who “can’t stand to see the other guy win”. To state that the biggest problem with terrorism is denial is an immensely weird way to characterize it. Keep in mind, Helpmann’s interview is propaganda, calculated to inspire the public’s loyalty to the regime. And yet, Helpmann talks about the battle between the government and the rebels as if it were a sports competition, and does not mention once what we see as the defining evil of terrorism: the random, indiscriminate killing of civilians. This suggests that the senseless loss of life is simply not an important issue for the Ministry’s subjects. Whenever there is an explosion, no one bats an eye. When one happens in a fancy restaurant, unharmed patrons continue eating and chit-chatting, with corpses, severed body parts and screaming, maimed victims mere feet away. When another happens in a department store, survivors do not pause even for a split second in their shopping frenzy. A one legged woman is the only one standing on a train, while all the other — non-disabled — passengers relax in their seats and don’t seem to notice her. Sam is unphased when he hears anguished screaming and then, moments later, sees his friend in a torn and bloodied lab coat. Sam is also unbothered by the fact that Buttle is tortured to death by mistake; his only concern is smoothing out the bureaucratic side of the error by giving Mrs. Buttle a “refund” for her husband.

The bombings seem to be aimed primarily at disrupting the ducts, but the rebels don’t mind taking out numerous innocent people along with the Ministry’s infrastructure. This indifference does not mean they are extraordinarily heartless monsters; rather, it is a consequence of operating in a world where the killing of innocent people simply isn’t seen as a big deal.

4. What’s real, and what isn’t?

There are many interesting scenes in Brazil, but I am thinking of one in particular: a bomb has just gone off in a department store, and Sam is frantically searching for Jill. He finds her, asks her if she is alright, and once assured that she is, berates her about the senseless violence (believing that she is the one who had set off the bomb). It’s an interesting scene because for Sam, this is completely out of character. The first half of the movie presents its protagonist, while not loathsome, as officious, bureaucratic and utterly indifferent to the feelings of other people. Jill, on the other hand, constantly asks people if they are alright and tries to help them, a rare quality in that world. So when Sam asks “Are you alright?” and breaks down over the havoc that’s just been wrought, he is kind of being Jill. This is but one of several clues that Jill is Sam’s alter ego.

I want to back up a little. I generally don’t like it when movies are interpreted as “It was all imaginary, tee-hee”, and parts of the film establish that Jill exists as a matter of plot. Still, great movies, movies that make us think, always have a certain ambiguity at the point where the story splits in two, what I like to call the baseline plot layer and the symbolic layer. This is further compounded by the fact that in a movie such as Brazil, set in a bizarre, absurd world, and where the story itself incorporates fantasies and nightmares, the very notion of reality is slippery.

Consider a few vignettes that form a pattern. Sam dreams of being an angel and making love to a beautiful woman. He later meets a woman in real life who looks exactly like the woman in his recurring fantasy — which already suggests that she is a creature of his imagination. The second time Sam encounters Jill, in Mrs. Buttle’s apartment, he sees Jill’s reflection in a fragment of a shattered mirror, which is positioned at such an angle that Sam appears to be looking directly at it, but instead of seeing his own reflection, he sees Jill’s face. When he grabs the mirror, Jill disappears and he sees his own reflection.

Jill is Sam’s opposite. She is brave, empowered by her convictions, and articulate. She is brazenly outspoken in her contempt for the regime and combative towards government officials in her efforts to extricate Mr. Buttle. Sam, by contrast, is someone who has always chosen the path of the least resistance, going so far as to become part of the oppressive, tyrannical system. And in his dream, Sam must slay the evil samurai, who turns out to be Sam himself, in order to set Jill free and merge with her in the heavens.

All this suggests that within the movie’s symbolic layer, Jill represents Sam’s own idealized self, his deeply repressed conscience. (“Doesn’t it bother you, the things you do at Information Retrieval?” she asks.)

And another neat detail: the first time we see Jill, she is naked, sitting in a bath — a symbol of purification — filled with charcoal-gray water, the filth that she has just washed off. Sam, like everyone else in the Ministry, is always shown wearing a charcoal-gray suit.

And then there is another scene with Sam and Jill involving a mirror:

All this — including Sam fighting with Jill, who is possibly himself — means that Jill skirts pretty close to becoming a representation of guilt, as well, and Sam’s super-ego — the prosecutorial part of the psyche that demands perfection from the self. In post-Freudian art, the super-ego is usually represented by a scolding mother. And sure enough, Jill eventually appears dressed as Mrs. Lowry and speaking in her voice.

5. What is the significance of ducts?

Roger Ebert, who did not like Brazil, took Gilliam to task for his “bizarre obsession with ducts”. Even the most positive reviews I’ve seen characterize the ducts primarily as a symbol of “technology gone wrong”. I find all this puzzling, because I think the significance of ducts is fairly obvious: the State is present everywhere and in a very substantial fashion. It is curious to see how the ducts disfigure even the most luxurious spaces, such as Mrs. Lowry’s palatial apartment and the upscale French restaurant where she and her friend are having lunch with Sam. The ducts are gray and massive, hanging so low they almost touch people’s heads. This clearly represents the oppressive role the Ministry of Information plays in every aspect of people’s lives. The ducts also connect every corner of the city to the Ministry and diverse spaces to each other, meaning everything and everyone is part of the information network.

The mobile home that Jill is towing away at the end of the story, with Sam inside it, is the only space in the movie that does not have ducts running through it. The interior of the house is obviously a prison cell, but the ducts are nowhere to be seen. This ties into Sam’s irreversible insanity as a result of torture: having gone mad, he is now a prisoner in his own broken mind, but on the upside, it’s the one place into which the Ministry cannot intrude. That’s why Mr. Helpmann says at the end “I think he got away from us” — Sam’s life may be destroyed, but at least he is beyond the Ministry’s reach. By going insane, Sam escapes his hopeless world in the only way possible, through madness.

6. Why does the Ministry of Information hunt down freelance heating engineers?

If you understand the importance of ducts in this movie, you can understand why the Ministry is touchy about people not employed by Central Services messing with the duct work. (Here is a neat detail: although it’s Christmas, the ducts, despite being the ugliest part of any space, are not decorated — not a single garland wrapped around one anywhere, a testament to how strict the rules are that no one should touch the ducts, for any reason.) At first, the Ministry’s preoccupation with Harry Tuttle seems absurd, but people who know their way around ducts can intercept information and disrupt the Ministry’s business just as easily as fixing someone’s air conditioning. That’s why Central Services — which is either a Department in the Ministry of Information or an agency controlled by it — is the only organization permitted to work on the ducts. The Ministry is hunting down Harry Tuttle so that it can maintain this monopoly.

7. Why is Sam obsessed with old movies and music?

Everyone is obsessed with old music and movies, not just Sam. Old tunes are played on the radio, and old movies are shown on television. This is often taken to mean a certain nostalgia on the part of Sam and others for a more vibrant, “innocent” world, or just an aesthetic choice on the part of the director. I believe, however, that in the more immediate sense, this indicates an absence of creativity in Sam’s society. People listen to old music because there is no new music. People watch old movies over and over, because movies aren’t being made anymore. After all, this is a world in which any nail that sticks up is ruthlessly hammered down, and people universally prefer the comfort of repetition and conformity. It’s the reason why everyone gives everyone else the same present, wrapped in the same silver gift paper. It is also the reason why everyone is dressed like it’s the 1940’s — and even by 1940’s standards, no one is dressed truly fashionably; outfits are uniformly conservative and drab. The only one with pretensions at haute couture is Mrs. Lowry, and it’s only because she is Helpmann’s mistress. Sam lives in a culture that’s become mummified.

This absence of any creative impulse is also reflected in the movie’s technology. If you look closely, the world depicted in Brazil is quite technologically advanced. But, while the technical know-how is definitely there, there is little concern for aesthetics, convenience or efficiency. As with any real-life totalitarian regime, the system in Brazil abhors change, any kind of change, and conservatism is thus reflected in every aspect of life.

8. Lesson for today (and every day)

Brazil was released twenty-seven years ago. Today, we live in a world where Americans are subject to an unprecedented degree of surveillance by the government. (Go ahead, click on that link. If you think you are safe from warrantless spying because you are an all-American farmer from Idaho or a stereotypical Texan cowboy, and not some “Middle-Eastern”, think again.) When I read about the extent of routine warrantless surveillance, I have to wonder what the authorities do with all that information. Does anyone actually read all those billions of e-mails? Analyze them? Cross-reference them? After all, mere gathering of information is no substitute for actual human intelligence — and the more information you collect, the harder you make it for people in the law enforcement to use that information intelligently. Putting aside the moral and Constitutional implications of all this spying, collecting mountains of mostly useless information will probably make hunting terrorists harder, not easier — again, as a purely practical point. So you change the system; you put it on autopilot, where certain key words trigger an arrest, indefinite detention (with torture) and disappearance. And that’s how you get to a humble shoe salesman being dragged away on Christmas eve and tortured to death without a trial — for no reason other than a glitch in the system. We are not there yet, thankfully — but excessive surveillance is surely the first important step towards creating the kind of society that exists in Brazil.

More movie interpretation:

“A Serious Man” (Coen Brothers, 2009)

“Blood Simple” (Coen Brothers, 1984)

“Fargo” (Coen Brothers 1996)
“The Aura” (Fabián Bielinsky, 2005)
“Buffalo 66” (Vincent Gallo, 1998)

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Posted in culture, entertainment, movies, What Does This Movie Mean? and tagged Brazil, Ministry of Information, Sam Lowry, Terry Gilliam, totalitarianism

I have, tucked beneath the desk where I write this essay, a duffle-bag full of wires. They are extension cords and power strips that I’ve accumulated over the years, as well as the connector cables and power cords from various electronics, some that I probably no longer own.

Since college, this bag has followed me from apartment to apartment -- at least nine so far, I think -- and has grown along the way. The contents of the bag have become more tangled and chaotic, the wires more indistinguishable from one another and from their original appliances. And for each new device I buy -- now all of them “wireless” -- one more wire is added to the bag, taken out of circulation but put into the reserves, just in case. Who knows what types of cords I’ll need at my next apartment?

As technology makes life easier by reducing the clutter of the past, this bag becomes its opposite. For this reason, keeping the bag (and it’s contents) seems necessary. It’s a place to store the chaos from which I’m trying to rid myself. If there were no bag, where would the chaos go? It would constrict around me, I fear, the wires tying me down like Gulliver on the beach. So I keep the bag, keep filling it, and keep it tucked away, semi-hidden.

In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a nation is built on the counter-balancing forces of progress -- here in the form of authority and public safety -- and chaos. In the film, the state is represented by a series of bureaucratic ministries whose job is to keep order and to keep a wave of faceless terrorism at bay. It does this through rigor and rigidity. The system is so efficient and vital that a single clerical error is all it takes to threaten the collapse of the State.

By depicting his dystopian society in this way, Gilliam has put onto film Walter Benjamin’s famous description of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. The Angle of History, explains Benjamin, is being blown into the future with his face turned toward the past, where he “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” Benjamin writes in "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (circa 1940):

"A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angle can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

As time and technology progress, with history at their heel, left eddying in the wake are the waste products -- those things that progress has intended to replace. Progress tries to replace the chaos of its predecessors with order and authority. But the chaos cannot be deleted, only hidden.

In the world of Brazil, there are ducts everywhere. They run through homes and restaurants and department stores. As we learn in the opening shot of the film, the ducts are built by Central Services, one of the state’s various ministries.

The purpose of the ducts is never explicitly explained, but one understands that they are used to continually reroute the chaos of the past. Because of entropy, the chaos, if allowed to sit still (perhaps because the tubes have been tampered with), will explode out into the world, which is exactly what happens seconds into the film: “old fashioned” ducts that don’t work properly lead, albeit indirectly, to a bombing. A pile of debris begins to form.

But Gilliam takes things further. It’s not just that chaos is the inevitable byproduct of progress. In Brazil, order -- again, another name for progress -- is built on top of chaos and disorder. As we know, chaos came first, with order trying, futilely, to replace it. But without the disorder, the order wouldn’t exist. That is the dirty secret that’s being covered up in Brazil. Without a cluttered bag of wires there would be no wireless efficiency to speak of.

The theme of hidden chaos is repeated over and over in Brazil, often quite literally. Behind the walls of an apartment is a jungle of wires, tubes and ducts, all of it pulsating like organs. At a restaurant, diners are served gray mush, above which sits a beautiful photograph of what the meal is supposed to be. Later, when an explosion destroys half of the same restaurant, the waiters merely put a screen between the diners and the death and destruction.

In a later scene, a man waves from the front step of an idyllic suburban home; but the home suddenly lifts into the air, revealing behind it a tubular black factory spouting fire and smoke. Additionally, in making room for its efficient society, the state’s efficiency must push to the fringes a mess -- dirty slums and streets lie somewhere beyond the clean edifices of the elite.

To French philosopher Jacques Lacan, this is the split between reality and the Real. The Real is the pulsating tubes and gray mush -- the chaos -- upon which reality -- the shiny surface of life -- is projected. The Real is the space of our hidden (repressed) desires, while reality is just what we think we want.

Brazil’s hero, the middling bureaucrat Sam Lowry, discovers the dirty secret with the help of a rogue engineer named Tuttle. Sam is first seen inside his own fantasy. He is dreaming, floating through the Real, away from the grip -- and safety -- of authority. We sees his unconscious desires, but they are separate from his waking life. That is, until Tuttle comes along, when the dream begins to slip and the barrier between reality and the Real beings to crack.

Tuttle is an agent of chaos who lets Sam see what’s behind the screen. He is the one who opens up the panel in Sam’s wall, exposing the inner workings, and he is the one whose name is misprinted as “Buttle” on an arrest warrant, causing the authorities to torture the wrong man -- a large enough wrench, so to speak, to cause the gears to stop working. This first mistake allowed disorder to slip out from under order. From that one pinhole, chaos begins to pour forth, first slowly and then in crashing waves as the hole is forced larger.

Tuttle is what Slavoj Žižek calls the “anamorphotic gaze”, a side-long glance at the unseen Real, the chaos. In his book, Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Žižek borrows the phrase “a gray and formless mist, pulsing slowly with inchoate life” from the novel The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag to describe the Real, a description that is fitting for the way the Real is portrayed by Gilliam.

For Žižek, discovering one’s desires in the mist of the Real is a consequential action, because in the Real is a person’s true desire, which is never what he thinks he want. Sam thinks he wants a beautiful American woman, but he really, unknowingly, wants chaos, which is what he gets in the form of a manhunt and of terrorist bombings. Žižek writes: “The frontier separating the two ‘substances’… is precisely what prevents us from sliding into psychosis”. Unlucky for Lowry, the frontier stops separating and he goes nuts. How much of the film is actually Sam’s psychotic delusion is hard to ascertain, but by the end it's clear that he’s lost his mind.

Also unfortunate for Sam is that all of this was predestined, probably from the moment he first fantasied (or at least from when Tuttle appears). When walking into his government office building, he passes a statue engraved with the slogan “The Truth Shall Make You Free” (emphasis mine). The truth is that the world is constructed upon the chaotic Real, and once Sam discovers that he becomes free from the construct. Sam is free from the authority of order and left to float in his fantasy, where he gets tangled in the wires and absorbed by the gray mist.


Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm
Year: 1985