An appreciation of Terry Gilliam’s Kafkaesque, Orwellian sci-fi masterpiece “Brazil”


It’s very clear that Terry Gilliam was hugely influenced by George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 before coming up with the complete idea for Brazil that he had in mind. I recall seeing an interview of Gilliam where he said he was influenced by the latter and don’t recall him mentioning 1984 at any point in the interview. If that’s the case, then either Gilliam is blessed with a prophetic vision that’s as good as Orwell’s or he was possessed by Orwell’s ghost when the idea to make a film like this popped into his head. But I am pretty sure he has read the book because there are enough evidences in the film that makes it so obvious. And I didn’t just see a similarity to Orwell’s ideas but also Kafka’s especially when it comes to the main character Sam Lowry, a bureaucrat working for a fictional data gathering organization called the Ministry of Information. The absurd, nightmarish experiences that Sam goes through, especially towards the end of Brazil is reminiscent of what the protagonist in Kafka’s The Trial goes through. Gilliam’s story also presents several ambiguities that would make for a good, intellectually stimulating discussion.


Brazil begins with a a dream sequence which would extend and show up at several points in the film later. As I’ve said earlier, Sam (played by Jonathan Pryce) works as a bureaucrat and leads a monotonous life just like most people in this world, especially those working as accountants and clerks. Sam just like the others, are living under the illusion that he loves his job but his recurrent dreams prove otherwise. Obviously this is a sign of a man who wants to escape from his dull existence and the “Brazil” alluded to in the title could be a reference to a far-away Utopian fantasy land where he could be safe from all the troubles that this world presents to him. It all begins with an error caused by a bug, a literal one at that. This bug falls down dead and gets stuck inside an automated typewriter which leads to a misprinted name that belongs to a long list of suspected terrorists. The owner of this name is an innocent cobbler and his subsequent arrest and execution upsets Sam. While informing the man’s widow of this bad news, he notices a woman living in the same apartment, who happens to have the face of the angelic woman he always sees in his dreams.


Sam later learns that her name is Jill and that she is desperately trying to report this error to the same organization that caused it. This gets her into the bad books of the Ministry and her name is added to the wanted list as well. Meanwhile, a malfunction in his air-conditioning system provides an opportunity for him to meet a technician named Archibald Tuttle (played by Robert De Niro). Sam learns that this is the “terrorist” that the Ministry has been actually looking for and was supposed to be actually arrested in place of the innocent man who just died earlier. He also learns that Tuttle doesn’t work for the Ministry approved maintenance services and that he had quit working there as a result of the never-ending frustration from all the annoying paper work. Meanwhile, Sam asks his well-connected, plastic surgery obsessed mother to find a way to get him transferred to a higher division inside the Ministry so that he’ll be able to obtain more information on Jill and finally get her named cleared from the blacklist. His attempts to save Jill only makes matters worse for him and is soon marked as a dissident by the Ministry and finds himself on the run being hunted by the Ministry’s agents.


You can look at this film either as a stimulating, prescient satire on the present world or you can see it as just another fully-realized science fiction film. The production design of the film is a mishmash of designs from different time periods. The men are dressed in costumes worn by people from the 1940s, the sets remind one of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the technology are quite similar to what we are using today. Gilliam gets it almost right, I have to say. One recurring motif is ducts; lots of lots of them and they perhaps serve as a metaphor for technology intruding into every nook and corner. The machines in Brazil give it’s characters a hard time and most of them are faulty, especially the ones in Sam’s apartment. The Ministry of Information has been compared to a certain, err, data-gathering agency that anyone who has seen the news is well aware of. It’s suggested at one point in the film that the so-called “terrorists” do not actually exist and that they were made up by the Ministry so that they can blame somebody for all the problems that’s been going on lately.


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