Some Thoughts on ‘Brazil’ (1985)

Something’s not right in Brazil (1985). While the quirky characters that fill Terry Gilliam’s oddly backwards future-scape cling to an appearance of efficient normality, these same people repeatedly reveal that they can’t be put in a numbered box and ticked off.

Sam (Jonathan Pryce), for example, literally finds himself in such confinement, after a line from his superior: ‘Your very own number on your very own door! Congratulations DZ-015!’ He quickly becomes irritated by the situation. He shares with his neighbor a desk, extending through his wall, and the pair often fight for supremacy of the space. As neatly arranged papers go flying in the tussle, we see that, even in his very own room, Sam affects and is affected by other people.

It’s a funny film though and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s tinged throughout with Flying Circus. Gilliam, part of the British comedy group Monty Python, co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown and the British playwright Tom Stoppard. It feels closer to Python than Shakespeare in Love (1998), another of Stoppard’s film credits, as the picture revels in the grotesque, the silly and the surreal. Mrs Samuels uses upside down stilettos for hats without so much as a blink. The main worry about being tortured is that, ‘if you hold out for too long you’ll jeopardize your credit rating.’ An insanity, of sorts, persistently knocks, as characters worry more about their numbers than their flesh.

One of my favorite exchanges in the film exemplifies this craziness. Sam and Jack (Michael Palin), old friends who’ve lost touch, bump into each other in the hallway of a government office. As they part, Sam says, ‘Give my regards to the twins.’ ‘Triplets,’ Jack responds. ‘Triplets? How time flies.’ In one sense, the mistake is rooted in numbers: there are three children, not two. But this numerical forgetfulness is complicated by Sam’s excuse. The passing of time does not turn twins into triplets; the change is based in Sam’s mind and due to his failing memory. He chooses, though, to hide in the quantifiable movement of the clock’s hands, shying away from the source of the problem. He comes to realize, however, that human functions – memory, anger, love – cannot be fully explained by numbers.

There is nonetheless a real attempt to reduce social engagement to a series of predictable codes. When Sam tries to order dinner, the waiter tells him (politely, at first), ‘You must say the number.’ As Sam refuses and tempers heat up, a battle begins, in which the waiter repeatedly shouts, ‘Say the number!’ Moments before, Shirely (Kathryn Pogson), a girl that has been dragged to dinner as a potential partner for Sam, attempts to join in the conversation. Like a human parrot, ‘Salt?’ confidently rolls off her tongue. She is too early, though, and her chaperon snaps ‘Not yet!’

From the opening scene, we know that the unpredictable – be it a fly or a man – cannot be controlled. Tender moments fueled by human emotions break through social and intellectual protocols. As Sam is unmasked and becomes aware he faces torture, he simply admits to Jack, ‘I’m frightened.’ It is touching to hear the sporting metaphors of an elderly government worker fall away under the pressure of Sam’s grief: ‘She’s upped stumps […] thrown in the towel […] she’s dead.’ Gilliam even purposefully lends a living quality to his machines: when Sam’s air conditioning unit is open, like intestines, a mass of pulsating tubes and wires spills out, leaking steam and noise. We become aware, like Sam, that try as people might: ‘They don’t usually make mistakes but […] we’re all human.’

Brazil‘s a film that’s tough to classify. It’s funny, tragic and difficult and really rewards watching again. The unnerving aesthetic of a bleak and alternative future, paralleled in Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen (1991), is an apt setting for a picture that questions how we, at a social and individual level, cope with the unexpected.

Elsewhere, I’ve written on Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008) and Żuławski’s picture Possession (1981), as well as Intertextuality in The Prestige (2006).


When he isn't busy writing about film, for his own blog as well as for the MacGuffin, Mark is currently studying English literature at Oxford University.

You can reach Mark via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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