Brazil is a Thatcherite attack on public sector unions and a send up of Thatcherism. It is a look backward at the cumbersome bureaucracy of the British welfare state and an astonishingly accurate prediction of the war on terror. It is a very good movie and a very bad one, Blade Runner with a higher IQ, Nineteen Eighty Four with a sense of humor, and a Monty Python skit that goes on far, far too long. Above all it is a portrait of a despair and passivity, a wildly baroque series of images that give a concrete visual reality to the diseased imagination of an ordinary man stuck inside a totalitarian hell so troublingly familiar it barely seems like fiction.
I suppose the first thing to get out of the way is that Brazil is not set in Brazil, or anything resembling it. It might not be the United Kingdom, but it certainly doesn’t look like any place in South America. Sam Lowry, Jonathan Pryce, works in the records department of the Ministry of Information. Brazil was filmed in 1985, but, while their computers look like crude hack ups of television sets and old-fashioned manual typewriters, they already have the Interent. Whatever his official job description, Lowry is a low-level tech support grunt, the kind of anonymous drone who fixes printers, cleans porn off the senior accountant’s hard drive, and does little favors for the less than computer savvy CEO. The plot is set into motion when a bug, a literal bug, and, by the way, the original meaning of the term “bug,” falls into a printer and changes the name “Tuttle” to “Buttle.” The ministry’s stormtroopers, who look exactly like a modern SWAT team executing a “no knock warrant,” break into the home of the mild-mannered Mr. Buttle, and drag him away as a suspected terrorist. The problem is that the ministry forwarded the medical records of Mr. Tuttle, not Mr. Buttle. Mr. Buttle has a heart condition. Sam’s friend Jack Lint, Michael Palin, doesn’t calibrate the torture correctly, and he dies under interrogation.
While the death of someone like Mr. Buttle normally wouldn’t bother anybody at the Ministry of Information any more than the death of a Pakistani child in a drone attack would bother most Americans, Mr. Buttle was incorrectly charged for his torture. Regulations require that his family get a refund, but, much to the frustration of Mr. Kurzman, Lowry’s supervisor in the Records Department, the Buttles don’t have a bank account. Kurzman sends for Sam Lowry, a lackey so trustworthy that he’s promised not to accept the standard promotion to Information Retrieval, and asks him to resolve the problem.
If Sam Lowry is a lackey working at a low level tech support job, he’s also a lackey with connections. He has in fact already been offered a promotion to Information Retrieval, partly because of his influential mother. While Ida Lowry, played by Katherine Helmond, is concerned mostly with plastic surgery and with keeping herself young, she’s probably a stand in for Margaret Thatcher. Sam Lowry is the classic, upper-class Anglo Saxon mommy’s boy, George W. Bush to Ida’s Barbara Bush, a man whose lack of ambition reflects his lack of masculine role models and his subjugation to the smothering feminine. Some of the most brilliant images in Brazil reflect a passive little man’s fear of the human body, and, more importantly, his fear of the feminine body. The tiny spot of blood at the threshold of Jack Lint’s office, an obsessive compulsive’s nightmare, the tubes and vents of his central air-conditioning that, after a disastrous visit by two hostile, incompetent repairmen from “Central Services” resemble nothing so much as a mass of swishy intestines, the grotesque faces of the middle-aged women at the fancy restaurant where Sam lunches with his mother, plastic surgery victims with decaying bodies, all of it testifies to a 40-year-old virgin’s fear of the womb.
Sam Lowry, like any passive man who’s afraid of the womb, also wants to go back to the womb. Unable to take control of his life, he lives in an adolescent fantasy world where he repeatedly attempts to rescue a damsel in distress, a young blond with long, natural flowing hair, and a billowing, white gown. On the surface, Sam’s fantasy is 180 degrees the opposite of his mother, but, after he goes to the Buttle’s apartment to deliver the refund check, he meets Jill Layton, Kim Greist. While Greist may somehow, oddly, have exactly the same face as the damsel in distress from his dreams, she’s no more soft, feminine, and passive then his mother. A short-haired, butch truck driver with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, Jill Layton has also witnessed the kidnapping of Mr. Buttle by the Ministry’s storm troopers. She has no wish to meet a representative from the government, even a middle-mannered lackey with a refund cheque. She takes off in her cab. Lowry is distraught. He’s met the literal woman of his dreams only to lose her.
“Wait,” you say, “he has her address? Why doesn’t he just drop by the next day?”
It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but nothing in Brazil works logically. We’re not in the real world, but in Sam Lowry’s unhinged mind. The chain smoking, short haired, truck driving Jill Layton is as much a dream girl as the dream girl from his actual dreams. If Brazil is often a frustrating, uncomfortable movie to watch, that’s really the point. It’s best read as the waking dream of Sam Lowry, as Sam’s nightmare, a place where you run, but your legs feel heavy, where you find a person you’ve long searched for only to lose her in a flash. Sam goes back to his mother and asks her to put through the promotion he turned down. If he works at Information Retreival he has access to that part of Brazil’s Internet that allows him to cybertalk Jill Layton in a way he wouldn’t be able to working at records. The fact that I took breaks during the movie, which I was watching on my computer, to cyberstalk people on Facebook testifies to just how prophetic Brazil is.
Once at Information Retrieval, Sam Lowry finds out that, like the real Tuttle, a rogue heating engineer who’s wanted as a terrorist but who seems to do nothing more than make unauthorized repairs that the government, and surely unionized, repairmen from Central Services are too busy to finish, Jill Layton is set to be arrested. Here’s his chance to be her knight in shining armor after all, just like in his dreams. He doesn’t even have to track her down. She comes to Information Retrieval herself to resolve the problem with Buttle’s wife her neighbor. But the elevator is broke and he misses her. He chases her down in the street. She still has no great urge to meet him, but he manages to tag along with her in her truck. The dreamer, then cyberstalker is now a genuine stalker. But, as Sam Lowry attaches himself to Jill Layton, the government is stalking them both. The ongoing terrorist campaign against the state, which may or may not be a false flag campaign by the government itself, has continued.
There’s a brief moment of bliss. Sam and Jill hide out in his mother’s apartment, where Sam finally gets what he wants. His dreams come true, quite literally, but it’s also his nightmare, even if he doesn’t quite realize it. When she puts on his mother’s blond wig, and wraps herself up in his mother’s sheets, she looks exactly like the girl in his dreams. But it’s his mother’s apartment, his mother’s wig, and his mother’s sheets. Is Sam really sharing a romantic evening with the girl of his dreams? Or is he simply masturbating in his mother’s apartment while she’s away on vacation?
Does it matter? Sam and Jill both get arrested as terrorists. Jill is “shot while resisting arrest,” and Sam is tortured by his old friend Jack Lint. Paradoxically, it’s a happy ending. The torture destroys Sam’s mind. The films ends with him smiling. At long last, he gets to live in his dreams. Be careful what you wish for, the film warns us. You might just get it. Indeed, the joke’s on us. What have we been watching for the past two and a half hours but Terry Gilliam’s dream? If Brazil is such a frustrating film to watch, if, after 150 minutes of a narrative that constantly breaks up and loops back on itself, grotesque imagery, sexual frustration, torture, long monologues that break the rhythm of the stories, characters that come out of nowhere and make no sense, and the sheer inability of people to connect, we feel as if we’ve been tortured right along with Lowry, that’s the point. That’s exactly what Gilliam is trying to say.
Get out of your head, go outside, and experience life for real.