The 100 Greatest films of all time – 8: Brazil

by Daniel Suddes

Brazil (1985) Directed by: Terry Gilliam  Written by: Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown Produced by Arnon Milchan and Patrick Cassavetti  Starring:  Johnathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin, Ian Holm, Katherine Helmond, and Jim Broadbent Oscar Count: 0 (Nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Original Screenplay)

 Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a film that has had its reputation expand enormously since its release twenty seven years ago. When it was first released, this story of a lowly bureaucrat trapped in a vast, soulless world, who dreams of something more for himself was certainly acclaimed, but was not widely seen in the U.S. In part, this was due to a feud between the director and studio, which was almost as famous as the film itself. But it remained in the public consciousness, and is now recognized as the masterpiece that Gilliam set out for it to be.

It is impossible to discuss the film without talking about the history of the “Battle of Brazil,” as it became known, so let’s get that over with. Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal at the time, saw Gilliam’s cut and hated it, with its obtuse dream sequences and its non-conventional visual design. He decided it needed to be improved to be more commercial. Specifically, the film was reduced to ninety minutes and was set up as a standard Hollywood conflict between good and evil (the ending has Sam escaping the city with Jill, and has the Ministry of Information being unambiguously destroyed), one of the things Brazil was meant to satirize. The alternate cut, available on the Criterion release, is a demonstration of how editing can radically alter a film – in this case, editors turned one of the greatest films of all time into one of the worst. The fact that the filmmaker won the battle (Sheinberg’s cut was never released into American cinemas) means that other filmmakers have been able to use Gilliam’s victory to push for their vision. Still, the battle shows how controversial the film is – not even the studio understood what Brazil was all about.

But what is Brazil all about? That is a question that does not have one universal answer.  What people pay attention to ultimately has become a reflection of their political preferences. Those on the right believe that Brazil is a total indictment of government, and demonstrates just quickly a “free society” (as the elderly government minister Mr. Helpmann calls the world of Brazil) can turn into a dystopian nightmare. There certainly are elements of that. The government of Brazil is made of grandiose sounding departments that accomplish their tasks incredibly poorly.  Information Retrieval does not seem to know much of anything about terrorism (if it truly exists at all – the terrorists that are shown, like Harry Tuttle, are very ambiguous and are not shown doing anything violent). Central Services is more interested in destroying homes and hates the procedures that are in place – presumably, the procedures created by the department. Even the government sanctioned torture does not appear to “work –“ instead of confessions or information, most of the people end up screaming or insane. Nothing can be done with filling out an endlessly amount of paper work, something that drives everyone to a sort of madness.

But it is not the Orwellian nightmare that some analysts claim. For one, the government in this world is not malicious, but completely inept. There is no real mention of surveillance (besides the huge robot security cameras present in the lobby, or the constant posters that are hung in order to ) nor is the head of the government ever shown. In fact, it is never explain just HOW this government functions. Most dystopian novels are very careful to explain how the government works, but with Brazil, that information is not even treated as something of any significance.

This is where those on the left can have their turn, and they say that the film is a criticism of materialism and the petty obsessions that most people currently find themselves having.  Again, those elements are present. Sam Lowry’s mom is obsessed with plastic surgery (and is introduced undergoing a procedure), and the rest of the upper class is shown to be obsessed with gaudy trinkets and bizarre toys. In an attack on Thatcher-era policies, prisoners are forced to pay for their own incarcerations.  Jill Layton (Kim Greist) frequently buys little toys to bribe “official monkeys” with. In the famed restaurant scene, in which Sam is abused by a French waiter who is trying to get people to buy what looks like baby food.  The corporations are just as inefficient as the government, with singing telegrams arriving hours late.

But that is also not the point. No characters in the film are ever shown handling money (except for Sam, whose offer of payment is turned down).  Also, information about the economy is absent. They shops that are present could be anything, and Sam’s mom and her surgery does not really further the plot or, in most cases, become anything more than the target for a cheap laugh.

So, frankly, the people who are analyzing the film in those regards are asking the wrong question in the first place. Brazil is not about the what, it is about the why. WHY does society allow what happens in Brazil to happen to itself?

The answer is all in the characterization of Sam Lowry and the people that he meets. The visual design of the film is so fantastic that viewers often overlook the people who inhabit the world. None of the villains that Sam seems are malicious or sadistic – in fact, quite a few of them are his personal friends like Michael Palin’s Jack, who works as a government torturer, and like Mr. Helpmann. The heroes that he admires (like his dream girl Jill or like Harry Tuttle) do not commit any sort of heroic actions – they are just people who are frustrated and commit their own tiny rebellions that ultimately amount to nothing. Thus, the oppressive system continues because no one is truly willing to stand up against it. They are content in their roles and in their own shallow existences. The penalty Sam suffers is not because he dreams, but because he is unwilling to follow through and truly fight.

This is the longest article I have written for the countdown, and many will complain that I have barely explained what happens in the film or who the characters are. This is true, but honestly, such elements are honestly beside the point. Brazil was a broad brush stroke, a giant “no” symbol over the world. Analyzing characters would be like analyzing the specific color of paint an artist uses. What’s important is what the paint was used for. And Gilliam used his paint to craft the most magnificent film satire in history, one that hits its targets every single time, a satire that only becomes increasingly relevant as time marches on.


The scenes that need to be examined in Brazil, more than any other, are Sam Lowry’s dream sequences. These moments not only demonstrate Gilliam’s visual expertise, but are essentially to understand the world that he has created for his viewers. These dreams, which work as a separate short film, show the battle of gold and evil in an almost childishly simply light. Sam imagines himself as a superhero, and those who cause his minor annoyances are fearsome villains. Of course, this is not what Sam Lowry is like at all. He is just as much of a cog in the machine as the people that he views as his enemies. But the thing is, Sam is not able to break away from that perception. His increasingly fantastic dreams show just how far away Sam’s perception of his reality is. Of course, Sam’s final dream is taken to be the true ending by first time viewers. But that is the strength of Gilliam’s direction. So comfortable are viewers with Sam’s perception of the world that we, like Sam, can no longer separate the fact from the fiction.

Did You Know: The film was initially titled 1984 ½, as homage to both George Orwell and Frederico Fellini. In fact, this title is still alluded to in the finished film – Jack’s office at the Ministry of Information Retrieval is located on floor 84.


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