The Quest for Freedom: A Study of Brazil

Official Poster for Brazil (1985)

‘Brazil’, released in 1985, takes place in a totalitarian and fascist world where freedom is stripped away, and the government has taken control over society. Though filled with many futuristic elements, Gilliam keeps the film grounded down to reality, with much of the world feeling like a relic of the steampunk era. Government propaganda corrupts every aspect of everyday life with the ever-present hand of the government manipulating its citizens. While the dystopian world of ‘Brazil’ may seem very familiar to other dystopian works such as ‘1984’ and ‘Blade Runner’, Terry Gilliam’s vision is far more timeless and reminiscent of classic epics (see here for how Brazil continues to be relevant to today’s society).

Sam Lowry, portrayed with both a delightful innocence and witty sense of humour by Jonathan Pryce, serves as the central character of the feature. He works in a desk job for the government where he confines himself to the rules of society and is seemingly lacking any ambition. However, in his dreams, Sam fantasies himself as a mighty warrior who flies and saves a damsel in distress. It is when Lowry meets his dream girl in the real world, Jill, that he goes on a reckless streak to find her which exposes his own rebellious tendencies and desires.

Sam’s dreams as a mighty warrior

It is in the dream sequences that the film is most reminiscent of a classic epic. The way the dream sequences are shot is almost angelic and embodies a fantastical vision. Terry Gilliam distinguishes these dreams from reality through the use of bright lighting which contrasts greatly to the dark and grungy feel of the real world. Sam’s battles with a mighty warrior are representative of his own inner struggles to break free from his mundane life and do something more with his life, to be someone better. Lowry takes many cues from other protagonists of adventure films such as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, released only under a decade before Brazil. Sam secretly seeks to be more than what he is, to become something more significant. But it is the way that Gilliam surrounds Sam Lowry in this harsh, dystopian reality that distinguishes him from other alike protagonists.

The world of ‘Brazil’ is one devoid of creativity or individuality. Everything in this world set sometime in the 20th century (though could be anytime due to its combination of old and new technology) is meticulously crafted, highly organised and strictly abided by. While it seems like the world of ‘Brazil’ is safe and peaceful, it is actually manipulating its citizens into fitting into the government’s corrupt and rigid order. The control of the government is further emphasized by all the various pieces of government propaganda abundant in everyday life such as “Be Safe, Be Suspicious’’ and “Suspicion breeds Confidence’’ which further enforces the government’s corrupt need to know every little detail of all citizens, making this a world devoid of privacy. On the road which Sam and Jill drive on together, there are billboards covering up all view of the barren outside world, which is another case of the government covering up the truth and its mistakes.

The Ministry of Information (Sam’s workplace)

The whole construction of Sam’s workplace at the Ministry of Information is fully compassing of the government’s destruction of creativity and soul. The office area is evidently made more drab and lifeless to further emphasise the lack of true originality or personality. The colours are very metallic and the whole workplace operates in synchronisation with constant efficiency at the pillar stone of success. Gilliam utilises some interesting camera angles such as when he is showcasing Sam in his new office after he’s gained a promotion to Information Retrieval. He uses a birds eye's view, shooting from above, which not only gives us a better idea of how dull and lonely the room is but also how the government acts much like big brother in 1984 (see here for how the dystopian world of Brazil was brought to life).

Jill Layton (Sam’s dream girl)

Sam Lowry may appear to be like any other rebellious hero, but it's his clumsy and cluttered rebellious streaks which make him feel like an everyman. He doesn’t intentionally break the law because he is a so-called ‘rebel’. He just does what he considers to be right or justified, which he believes is finding his dream girl, Jill. He certainly creates quite a mess of it while on his quest for Jill and his determination to find her through any means possible such as a job promotion and the manipulation of his friend, Jack, can also be seen as sociopathic but the way that Gilliam presents Sam as the heroic humorous figure helps makes all his actions inherently less creepy, though if it occurred in a film nowadays there would most likely be major controversy over the characterisation of Jill.

The way the film views Jill is also eerily similar to how Sam views her: an objective for him to strive towards. Jill is nothing more than a plot point, made to advance Sam’s quest for freedom but ultimately makes Sam more unlikeable as a person. While in Sam’s dreams Jill is meant to be a damsel in distress, even in the real world, her strong, feisty personality is soon forgotten about as she magically falls for Sam’s charms (or lack thereof) which she herself makes a joke about. Before making love with Sam, Jill even says “Care for a little necrophilia” which is so creepy and out of place. Jill is, unfortunately, nothing more than a caricature of female empowerment which is disappointing as only six years before Brazil’s release, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1976) was able to have such a strong female protagonist in the form of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and make it feel believable and earned. It is truly disheartening that the whole cause of Sam breaking away from totalitarian society is a result of a female character who is devoid of true personality and is written to be strong, but soon loses that endearing quality.

Sam’s escape from reality and journey into fantasy

Despite the film’s pitfalls to truly make the romance between Sam and Jill believable which is unfortunate since it is meant to be the heart of the story, Sam’s quest for freedom is truly reached and achieved in a way that feels both fantastical yet grounded in reality. The whole end sequence is so wonderfully constructed by Terry Gilliam, who plants many subtle clues and hints to what is truly at hand. There is firstly Tuttle being surrounded by papers and scraps who Sam attempts to rescue, before realizing that he has simply disappeared into thin air. The way the crowd looks as Sam as though he is insane is some clever foreshadowing that something is up. Another moment is when Sam rushes to find Jill, before discovering that it is in fact, his mother, but younger and attractive. Gilliam ingeniously puts the audience in a constant state of shock and confusion, to keep them on edge and invested in the action. The big reveal that Sam is in fact trapped inside a dream state is brilliantly handled. The sudden appearance of the Ministry officials and then the cut to Sam trapped in his dream is such a jarring and impactful moment. The ending of ‘Brazil’ works so effectively because it not only gives Sam a happy ending but also maintains the tragedy and misery of everyday life in this bureaucratic and totalitarian society. Having Sam escape from reality by getting trapped in a dream, completes his quest for freedom but in a morbid form that perfectly fits in line with the film’s downtrodden tone and theme of the restriction of personality and soul.

It is undeniably questionable why Universal Pictures wanted to alter such a perfect and poetic ending. Terry Gilliam’s own quest for artistic freedom in getting his version of ‘Brazil’ in many ways mirrors Sam’s own quest for freedom (see here for how Gilliam got his preferred version of Brazil to the public). Life does truly imitate art in some cases and ‘Brazil’ is certainly a memorable and culturally important artistic achievement. ‘Brazil’ may not achieve everything that it is aiming for and as such, lacks any true heart at its core, but it ultimately presents a view of society that is not so dissimilar from our own reality and what it could become. Now isn’t that truly visionary?

Bibliography

Cinephilia & Beyond. 2019. Duct Soup: The Daffy, Dystopian Design Nightmare of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ • Cinephilia & Beyond. [ONLINE] Available at: https://cinephiliabeyond.org/duct-soup-the-daffy-dystopian-design-nightmare-of-terry-gilliams-brazil/. [Accessed 12 June 2019]

Consequence of Sound. 2019. The Nightmare of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil 30 Years Later — Consequence of Sound | Consequence of Sound. [ONLINE] Available at: https://consequenceofsound.net/2015/12/the-nightmare-of-terry-gilliams-brazil-30-years-later/. [Accessed 11 June 2019]

Wikipedia. 2019. Brazil (1985 film) — Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_(1985_film). [Accessed 13 June 2019]

http://thefourohfive.com. 2019. The Battle of Brazil — How Terry Gilliam took on Universal Pictures, and won.. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.thefourohfive.com/film/article/the-battle-of-brazil-how-terry-gilliam-took-on-universal-pictures-and-won-151. [Accessed 13 June 2019]

BMFInsights: Dan Santelli: Why I Love BRAZIL. 2019. BMFInsights: Dan Santelli: Why I Love BRAZIL. [ONLINE] Available at: http://brynmawrfilm.blogspot.com/2012/06/dan-santelli-why-i-love-brazil.html. [Accessed 13 June 2019]

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