“Tomorrow Was Another Day…” Living in the World of BRAZIL

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 08/02/2018

This is the second installment of our intern Josiah Berger’s exploration of science fiction films. Spoilers ahead.

Fresh off the success of his children’s fantasy film Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam directed what would come to be referred to as his magnum opus–the science fiction epic Brazil. The film presents an Orwellian fantasy, one that gives not one but several Big Brothers. This is a world where numerous men are in charge, where each claims innocence in any potential failures in the society therein. This confusion of authority and spreading of blame leads to countless miscalculations, including the imprisonment and execution of an innocent man.

Gilliam derived the title from the alluring song featured in both the beginning and ending of the film, Ary Barroso’s “Aquarela do Brasil”. In that melody, the singer sings about their positive experiences in the nation of Brazil, along with their desire to soon return. In the film, however, the citizens live in a culture where they must accept the dissatisfaction they have with the status quo, and they are given no options for improvement. Indeed, no outside society is revealed or even referenced. In addition, the society shown has grown used to the existence of terrorist bombings, as displayed when Sam joins a group for lunch and no members of the table are surprised or distressed by a sizable explosion on the other side of the restaurant.

Brazil follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a low-level government employee whose goal is to find, quite literally, the woman of his dreams. The woman she appears to be is Jill Layton (Kim Greist), coincidentally the neighbor to Archibald Buttle, the innocent man that was captured and killed by the state. As the film begins, Sam has never met Jill in real life, but his sleep-induced delusions present him with a world he’d rather live in. His infatuation begins not with her, but with his idea of her. He never accepts Jill for who she really is, and indeed, neither he nor the audience discover who she really is. She goes through no visible character arc through the course of the film, and it is never revealed what becomes of her by the end. Sam’s fantasies of Jill always consist of him rescuing her from a form of plight or danger, but always cut short of him staying with her once she’s rescued. This foreshadows the separation Sam and Jill go through by the end of the film. Once he meets her, she goes against all of his understanding of her, as she operates entirely as an individual, and his desire to “rescue” her is unwanted by Layton. This brings Sam into a state of paranoia, becoming physically abusive towards Jill and accusing her of being a terrorist.

This immediately introduces the audience to one of Brazil’s prominent themes: the discussion of what constitutes reality. Even when fully awake, Sam unconsciously slips into his hero fantasies, never seeing them as figments of his imagination until he’s re-entered the “real world”. But what makes his fiction any less true than his reality? Sam’s perspective is the lens through which the entire narrative is shown, and it’s a perspective the viewer can never fully trust. By the end of the film, Sam has completely lost track of the reality in front of him, living instead in the world his subconscious has created.

Sam works in the same building as his closest (and perhaps only) friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin). Lint is hired to conduct medical procedures against convicted felons, including forced frontal lobotomies and executions. Lint is initially presented as a loving father prone to treating the people in his life with paternal care, and the reveal of his job comes as a surprise to Sam (as well as the audience). Here we see that Sam’s personal life stretches little beyond the office, his brief interactions with his mother, and the resulting seclusion that leads to his unruly imagination.

The setting of Brazil, in particular the time the story is meant to take place, is something Gilliam plays with. The opening text to the film reads,  “8:49 P.M., Somewhere in the 20th Century”. In addition to the specificity-meets-ambiguity of the film’s setting, the film also juxtaposes anachronisms of different time periods. While he gives the audience countless examples of futuristic technology (granted, though flawed technology at that), Gilliam also chooses for his characters to dress in full gray and black suits, staples of 1940s culture. Here Brazil shows that with every advancement in technology, society can devolve into an earlier form of itself. The further the Government stresses the importance of truth, the more they strive in suppressing it. Institutions such as the Ministry of Information exist not to inform the public, but to deceive them. With the excess information present in the sheer amount of the world’s paperwork, this leads to a state of constant ignorance.

As technology advances, it becomes less user-friendly and necessary (i.e., the increasing size of everyone’s air ducts, and the needlessly complex switchboard home telephones). It almost seems as if the manufacturers of these products are not only incompetent, but striving to make lives for their customers needlessly complicated. This is also shown with the society’s usage of magnifying glasses over television screens and computer monitors, versus merely creating larger television screens and computer monitors. Gilliam is criticizing not only government, but also industries in their role of societal manipulation.

Gilliam also takes the time to indict the logic that industrialism uses to suppress information: the populist ideology that the world consists of winners and losers, with the latter of which enjoying life more if they simply did as they were told. Whenever acts of violence are committed against a society, the industrialist claims no responsibility and says it is the duty of every citizen to be on the “winning side”. The film’s depiction of media is that of a governmentally-overseen broadcast, always airing interviews with high-ranking statesmen. The first interview shown is one involving the Ministry of Information’s Deputy Minister. When asked for his explanation for the recent spike in terrorist bombings, the Deputy Minister responds, “Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seems to have forgotten certain good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people would just play the game, they’d get a lot more out of life.”

Brazil’s narrative can be very difficult to follow on first viewing. Every moment in the film leads directly into the next, and if the viewer doesn’t follow the information revealed in one scene, then the rest of the film functions as a puzzle. With the sheer excess of information presented, the names of important characters (including certain names that deliberately and confusingly sound alike) can be hard to remember. This puts the audience in the same state of mind as Sam, as he constantly questions what he’s been told in order to move forward.

By the end of the film, Sam is captured by authorities and put in a torture chamber where awaits the arrival of his friend Jack Lint. Sam is subsequently lobotomized by Jack and now lives entirely in the fantasy of he and Jill escaping to live a life together. Sam character’s arc then is not a result of him having achieved his goal, but in his failure to achieve it, and the ignorant bliss that failure brings him. Gilliam forces the audience to ask themselves whether they themselves live in such a state, complete ignorance to the ways in which government and industries manipulate a culture’s daily lives. Moreover, Gilliam chooses to show the benefits of living in a state of delusion. While Sam certainly does not live a more “fulfilling” life by the end of the film, he certainly leads a happier existence. Perhaps the bliss comes not out of ignorance, but in the acceptance that fantasy can be preferable to reality.


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