The holiday season has come to a close, and everyone is back at the office. What better time to talk about Terry Gilliam’s masterful critique of bureaucracy run amok in his 1985 film Brazil? Coincidentally, the satirical events in Brazil take place during the holiday season as well, but the buffoonish consumer society of Brazil‘s universe continue their holiday shopping and eating with bombs going off in the same room.
It is no surprise to me that this movie makes use of tropes from absurdist drama, such as exaggeratedly out-of-order priorities and juxtapositions of high culture and low culture (or refinement and violence), as Terry Gilliam and his erstwhile co-writer Charles McKeown collaborated on Brazil‘s screenplay with renowned absurdist playwright Tom Stoppard (who you may know as the writer of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and co-writer of Shakespeare in Love). Indeed, the entire movie dances with dark comedy as it finds joy in showing us tragic and despicable horrors straight out of Orwell’s 1984, and I find joy right along with it.
Absurdity and Dystopia in Brazil:
Terry Gilliam, whose earlier work as a member of Monty Python must have brought him up against censorship staff again and again, would have been keenly aware of the arbitrary guidelines and unreasonable power that can be vested in bureaucratic entities. So he took all of his well-developed comedic chops and directed them savagely at the cold, sterile heartlessness of any system that prizes order, obedience, and tradition above empathy, common sense, and understanding.
Yet Brazil is not a comedy; it is a movie at which you smile with a pit in your stomach. I have previously written about the same topic being given a similar (and similarly masterful) treatment in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In such works, there is a stirring, heartbreaking tragedy from which the accompanying comedy refuses to shield you, and which that comedy instead worsens. The inciting incident of the plot that leads to several downfalls and needless deaths is a dead fly that falls into a machine and causes a printing error. This seemingly insignificant issue is compounded by the self-preserving and self-righteous institutions ostensibly tasked with securing the safety and enforcing the law of the society.
There are many non-negligible parallels between the world of Brazil and the world of George Orwell’s 1984 (and Brazil was conspicuously in production during the year 1984), but the comedic propensities of all three writers involved could not help but give the viewer a wry smile at the expense of such banal evil. Poking fun at Orwell’s dystopia is nothing new, but finding a way for the humor to enhance the tragedy is a uniquely absurdist strategy, and is terribly difficult to get right.
Finding sadness in laughter which is in turn at the expense of obvious ignorance and understated tragedy is the supreme achievement of the quintessential absurdist play, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. And when the people’s best protector in Brazil is a rogue heating duct repairman played by a grinning Robert De Niro, or when a doddering, aristocratic woman played by a high-pitched Barbara Hicks is killed by the increasingly extreme nature of her clearly flawed cosmetic procedures, that is the achievement of Brazil as well. This balance is notoriously hard to strike, and, as a related aside, that is part of why I think academic devaluations of Catch-22 are thoroughly misguided.
Still, Brazil has something that Catch-22 does not have: the surrealism that would later be recognizable as a trademark of Gilliam’s films. There are lengthy dream sequences, hallucinations, and blurred lines among dreams, visions, and reality. Although he has recently grouped it with his later dystopian satires (12 Monkeys and The Zero Theorem), Terry Gilliam was wont for ages to refer to Brazil as part of an escapist trilogy, bookended by Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Long segments of the movie, including these surreal moments as well as the song that lends its name to the film’s title and numerous instances of characters watching classic cinema, establish a motif of escapism. 1984‘s Winston Smith also has visions (primarily of a pleasant meadow), but Brazil‘s protagonist Sam Lowry (portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) departs from reality in more far-reaching ways, placing the focus less on the romanticism of Smith’s field and more on fantasy and, ironically, that favorite existential topic—authenticity. What is sought is not merely the idyllic dreamscape, but the reality of human connection toward which the visions lead Lowry.
Brazil is also notable for the proudly, brilliantly un-subtle performances of Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, and Ian Holm. Every line rings with all of the casual ridiculousness of its writing. This same hyperbolic approach is also a part of the film’s incredible world-building and set design, with frugally tiny computers placed behind magnifying apparatuses and walls jam-packed with coils of (in)convenient pipes and ducts.
Brazil will make you laugh with tears in your eyes, and make you cry with an uneasy grin. Like all dystopias, it bears a didactic warning, and its chosen lesson is that the worst thing a society can be is in possession of too much propriety and not enough empathy. Notably, it provides the caveat that any progenitors of such heartlessness are as worthy of our laughter as of our disdain.
Brazil does all this by making full use of the talents of everyone involved in making it, and I highly encourage you to find a way to watch this cult classic—and laugh, hate, and cry along.
1984 with a Sense of Humor: