Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

Sept 2010

(1985 Movie) Brazil, directed by: Terry Gilliam

(Reaction) Fly in the Ointment by: Antonio Conejos

Everyday life is filled with weighty concerns, the mortgage to pay, the children to educate, the deadline to meet. We roll our Sysyiphian boulders up the hill every day, cursing the slope of the ground, the challenges we must crest. The system of our world is based on heft, the gravity of things weighing us down. Brazil begins with such a system, one built around the heaviest stones of all: control and authority.

The system must have control. This is achieved by assigning everything a neat, conceptual box, tagged and labelled with a number. Thus, Brazil features a world which prefers numbers over nouns. Sam at a restaurant cannot order a steak but must order a number 3. Upon promotion to Information Retrieval, Sam is dubbed with his own serial number which he uses instead of his name when he talks to some of his coworkers. Moreover, instead of Sam's name being written on the door to his office, what is etched is his serial number.

Inevitably, numbers lead to conformity, hence all the food looks the same (uniformly wretched) and all the denizens of the government offices look like they were cloned from the same mold (upstanding young men who nod off to watch the telly every chance they get). Even children are reduced to numbers, later in the film Jack can no longer tell his triplets apart.

The system must have authority. This authority will have the final say on what is, and what isn't. Thus, Jack's wife, whose real name is Allison, becomes Barbara because Mr. Helpmann mistakenly thinks that is her name. Jack even adopts this abrupt name change, asked later on why he still calls his wife by the wrong name, "Why ever not, Barbara is a perfectly good name isn't it?"

In this world characterized by weight and hefty concerns lives an unimportant man, Sam Lowry. His is a small life chiefly characterized by his lack of ambition, "wonderful, marvellous, perfect" is his comment when told his job at Records is a dead end. Even his dreams are characterized by the absence of weighty things; thus he dreams of flight, cartwheeling in the sky. Sam Lowry is a small man, but ironically the system does not know how to deal with small things.

Indeed, the entire plot of Brazil is a demonstration of the inability of a gargantuan system of control to deal with the little things, the small wrinkles of everyday life. The confusion between Buttle and Tuttle which sets off the entire chain of madcap events is caused by a small matter, a literal fly in the ointment. A bored government official swats a fly while at work which falls into the printer, botching the printing of the name Tuttle to Buttle. In essence, the government swats the wrong fly (Buttle is also an inconsequential man) because of a literal fly.

The first meeting between Sam and Harry Tuttle is also a result of the system's inability to solve simple problems. Sam's airconditioning breaks down and Harry solves the problem neatly by installing a simple bypass - no muss, no fuss. In contrast, when Central Services finally arrives they transform Sam's apartment into a maze of pipes, ducts, lights and smoke, all to solve a problem which Harry fixed cleanly and efficiently.

Mr. Kurtzmann typifies the breakdown of the system in the face of little things. Faced with the conundrum of how to refund a check, he becomes paralyzed with indecision, moaning, "we'll never get rid of the damn thing now." It is Sam who thinks of a solution and volunteers to deliver the check personally. Thus it is up to Sam, the insignificant small man, to deal with a problem that has paralyzed the system. Ironically though, it is in attempting to honestly work for the system that Sam demonstrates that the system is hard pressed to restrain a small man and his small dreams.

Sam dreams of a woman. A simple enough dream for a simple enough man. Yet the pursuit of this dream will eventually wreck havoc in the carefully controlled system of Brazil. It is while delivering the check to the widow of the unfortunate Buttle that Sam finds Jill Layton, the girl of his dreams.

Sam's first sight of her is through the shards of a broken mirror. Mirrors are a recurring motif in Brazil which demonstrate the fluid and convoluted nature of the truth in a society governed by a system of control and authority. Mirrors advance the truth, such as Sam's first glimpse of Jill's reflection in a mirror or his promotion to Information Retrieval (the viewer is never directly shown Sam being promoted, the entire promotion scene with Mr. Helpmann in the washroom is seen only through the reflection of a mirror).

However, mirrors are also barriers to the truth. When Sam is arguing with Jill at a mall he hides her behind a mirror so Mrs. Terrain won't see her. The mirror creates a double of Sam and emphasizes his fib to Mrs. Terrain that he's there to shop. Moreover, all the computers in Brazil are covered by a secondary layer of glass, there are no naked monitor screens in the film. The additional layer between user and monitor highlights the distance of the user from the source, truth, of the information.

Thus mirrors in the film reflect the shifting nature of truth and the fine line between reality and fantasy. They at different times serve contradictory notions of reflection and transparency, clarity and obfuscation, the truth or some version of it.

This world of shifting truth is also one of constant violence. People have become accustomed to it, conditioned to accept death and the pain of others. As such, they go about eating when a restaurant is bombed, the waiters solicitously screening off the damaged portion with screens. Later in the final assault on the Ministry of Information, janitors calmly continue working even though a firefight between the police and rebels. Torture is cheerily transcribed by a middle age receptionist. In fact, the torture instruments themselves are mixed in with children's toys.

Crucially though, Sam is not fully accustomed to the violence and waste of human life. He cringes when he realizes what the seemingly innocuous receptionist is transcribing. Moreover, while he acts with childish glee when he surveys the violence he causes while running from the authorities, he quickly becomes somber at the site of a security officer stumbling out of the flames, burning alive. Sam is keenly aware of the consequences of his actions, that he is capable of causing harm or hurt to others.

This is in contrast to the system which instinctively seeks to place the blame of its actions on others. Thus, those taken by Information Retrieval are even billed for the cost of their incarceration and torture; the subtext being it's your fault that we had to go to the trouble of pumping information out of you and therefore you should pay for it. Towards the end of the film, Mr. Helpmann pleads with Sam to confess so they can get the "trial" over with. These incidents give the impression that the system is not to blame for incarcerating innocent men and women, that it is not at fault when it kills and tortures by mistake.

While Sam takes it upon himself to act, and witnesses first hand the result of his actions, the central authority figures of the film are paralyzed, incapable of action. Mr. Kurtzmann is unwilling to sign the refund check, feigning an injury he says he cannot sign anything. Mr. Helpmann too is literally paralyzed, so much so that he needs to ask Sam's help to use the washroom. The system is at once in control and powerful but it is also paralyzed and impotent.

That the authorities have difficulty in containing Sam on his ill-planned quest to protect the woman of his dreams demonstrates the system's difficulty in dealing with simple human concerns such as dreams and love. However, while the system is bumbling in its size, it catches up with them eventually.

There is very little hope of escaping the system of Brazil. Sam gets a night of a fulfilled dream before it (the system and his life) comes crashing down on him. Even Harry, the embodiment of the rebellion against the system, is ultimately literally consumed by paperwork, eaten alive, and vanishes. While Harry challenges the system it is evident that he has also been corrupted by the system. For one, Harry is perpetually paranoid, just like the system. Moreover, even his speech espouses the system. Every time he helps Sam, he does it with the explanation that, "We're all in this together." This very saying can be found on numerous propaganda posters scattered throughout the film. Thus, Harry too is trapped by the system, so much so that the cadence of his speech is even dictated by it.

There is then no direct challenge to the system of control and authority. While Sam can move within it, he cannot make his way out of it. Sam ensures however that if he cannot escape the system, at least he will make sure that the system does not enter and consume him. As the system beats him down he constructs his own reality to keep the system at bay. He falls through the coffin of Mrs. Terrain and stumbles into a world which the system cannot enter. Mr. Helpmann at the end admits defeat, "He's got away from us Jack", to which Jack replies (ever subservient), "He's gone."

A small man in his small world, unfettered by weighty concerns, and free.


Dystopian worlds lend themselves easily to various themes - moral ambiguity , resistance in the face of tyranny , the conscious choice of pleasant illusion over dismal reality - but rarely does comedy enter the picture. Brazil though bucks the odds and manages to elicit laughs from its absurd situations. The film's script takes most of the credit for the chuckles with dialogue like Jack's pathetic defense of himself, "The wrong man was delivered to me as the right man. I accepted him on good faith as the right man, was I wrong? wasn't my fault Buttle's heart condition didn't show up in Tuttle's file." Especially funny too is Sam's awkward guess about which part of Allison's body has gone under the knife. The film, in its humor and its treatment of modern concerns (the omnipresence of television, obsession with plastic surgery, consumerism, the drudgery of bureaucratic buffons) still feels fresh despite the more than 20 years since it's release.

The camera work of the movie is also nicely done, emphasizing movement despite the constrictive nature of many of the sets (eg. long, narrow hallways and rooms, crowded malls and restaurants). In particular, the final image of the torture chamber, old, immense and encompassingly smooth is arresting (pun not intended). My only quibble with the movie is that it goes on a tad too long (please note I watched the Director's Cut). Really, how many times do we need to see the hero fighting against the samurai embodiment of the system?

On a personal note, I sympathized completely with the depiction of the inanity of government's obsession with forms and departments and officials refusing to take responsibility. I come from a country where it takes over a month to get a simple city mayor's permit to operate a business. It's ridiculous. Forms, stamps and receipts are the death knell of civilization. But at least we may take solace in the fact that our decline will be well documented, tallied and accounted for.

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