Brazil (1985)

Retro Review: Brazil (1985)

This review contains spoilers.

Thank goodness for Terry Gilliam. Thank goodness he realizes what our society has become: A bunch of sticklers for paperwork who are so concerned about adequately covering their posteriors that they don’t realize they’ve become consumer-driven, dehumanized, and demoralized by a system that simply doesn’t work. This is the central theme of the movie. It is not a love story (although it may have have you thinking otherwise); it is not a comedy about the follies of requiring paperwork for anything you could ever dream of doing; it is not an action movie, a tragedy, or even about a person overcoming fear and taking a step to stop evil. However, Brazil incorporates all of these ideas to get its point across. Flawlessly.

The movie opens with a sky shot, the camera flying freely through the clouds. Then, the time (8:49PM) appears on the screen, followed shortly by: “Somewhere in the 20th Century.” It cuts to a view of a shopping window with on-sale TVs behind it. A messenger from Central Services (the agency responsible for getting things to work) appears on of the TVs and spouts off about new colored ducts being available to the consumer. A man pushing a shopping cart full of Christmas presents walks by, and as he approaches the center of the window, an explosion rips the TV display case, the shopping cart, and the man to bits.

Cut next to a clerk in Information Retrieval, printing out wanted forms on a suspected terrorist named Henry Tuttle. A beetle flies around the room, annoying the clerk, who finally manages to squash it against the ceiling. Dead and unable to resist the pull of gravity, the beetle falls  . . . right into the printing machine, which malfunctions long enough to change the word Tuttle to Buttle.

Now, we are shown the inside of a duct-filled apartment. A man, his wife, and their two children are enjoying a Christmas story when Stormtrooper-esque soldiers bust down from the ceiling, the doors, and the windows. They throw a potato sack-like jacket over the head of Mr. Buttle and tie him up, and a man from Information Retrieval promptly arrests him (then requires the hyperventilating wife to sign a few forms). Welcome to Brazil, where victims of Information Retrieval are charged money for their tortures (and advised on how to take out loans with low interest rates just for this occasion!).

The story follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), an intelligent, but rather shy clerk from Department of Records, who accepts his role in society and the way it operates. He begins changing his mind when he sees, from a closed-circuit TV camera, the girl of his dreams, Jill Layton, trying to inform the government that they have made a mistake in arresting the person living below her (Mr. Buttle). For the remainder of the film Sam chases after her (mostly in his mind), and conjures up wild ideas about her possible involvement as a terrorist.


Brazil (1985)

Sam Lowry is a harried technocrat in a futuristic society that is needlessly convoluted and inefficient. He dreams of a life where he can fly away from technology and overpowering bureaucracy, and spend eternity with the woman of his dreams. While trying to rectify the wrongful arrest of one Harry Buttle, Lowry meets the woman he is always chasing in his dreams, Jill Layton. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy has fingered him responsible for a rash of terrorist bombings, and both Sam and Jill’s lives are put in danger.

Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond
Genre: Science Fiction
Media: Film, 142 minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $9.9 million, US domestic
Year: February 22, 1985
4 out of 5 stars

One of the funniest moments in the film occurs between Sam and his boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (played by Ian Holm). When it is discovered that Mr. Buttle is due for a refund (Information Resources overcharged him for his torture), Mr. Kurtzmann’s worst nightmare comes true. He has never had to do a refund, and therefore, it can’t be his department’s mistake. Unable to cope, he begs Sam to help and they discover that Mr. Buttle has been killed during torture. This only upsets Mr. Kurtzmann more, not because Buttle is dead, but because Kurtzmann’s department might be stuck with the refund check.

Meanwhile, Sam’s rich mother (Katherine Helmond), drags Sam to formal dinners to meet her best friend’s daughter, gets him a promotion he doesn’t want (at first), and spends the majority of her time (as her best friend, Mrs. Terrain, spends hers) in a cosmetic surgeon’s chair, getting face lift after face lift. Although the procedure is dangerous, both women put their looks before their health (with dire consequences for one of them, with hilarious indifference by the victim).

And who could forget Sam’s best friend, Jack Lint, who quickly moves into the fast paced world of Information Retrieval? This is Brazil’s darkest character, and considering Michael Palin himself is about as dark as a Teletubby, his ability to pull this off is extremely admirable. Jack takes his four-year old daughter to his place of work, and his ability to act so loving towards his daughter before and after he tortures people says volumes about the desensitization of the world in which he lives. Work to Jack is simply that. Work.

Robert De Niro plays Henry Tuttle, the suspected terrorist. A mechanical engineer who’s fed up with the paperwork and society’s general lack of caring. He comes to Sam’s rescue numerous times when The System fails. He is Sam’s inspiration for hope. As Tuttle says, “We’re all in this together.”

Other memorable performances are from Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor, the maintenance workers for Central Services who make Sam’s life a living hell, all due to his allowed tampering of his failed air conditioning unit.

The costumes and the sets for Sam’s real world have a well-constructed retro 40s/early 50s feel, back in the time when the government ensured bright futures for all. The music throughout the movie is a variation on the song Brazil, from which the movie’s title stems.


Terry Gilliam possesses a particular talent for the producing films that are quirky, absurd . . . yet bordering on prescient. Many of the bureaucratic and narcissistic themes present in Brazil are simply hyperbolic interpretations of the current world we live in. I have yet to see another film that can seem so disturbing and realistic, yet at the same time be so funny, ironic, and fantastical.

Words © 1999-2021, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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