Taking a Second Look at Brazil

BrazilIn 1985, I saw Brazil in the theater. Mostly, it didn’t affect me greatly one way or another. And then we came to the end, and I hated it. I was a big fan of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And just the year before, Michael Radford had made what I still consider one of the greatest film adaptations of a book ever. It really was a perfect rendering of what I had imagined while reading it. What’s more, it showed the perfection of totalitarian efforts — where you couldn’t even die to escape it. Thus, I saw the ending of Brazil as a cheap attempt to create a happy ending.

That has been my position ever since. But recently, I began to wonder about that. Part of this is just a function of my cooling off to the book. I still think it is great, but very clearly, totalitarian regimes have never perfected their art. It is rather “free” societies that have managed to break the wills of we Winstons without anything so extreme as Room 101. What’s more, I always knew there was a loophole in the novel. O’Brien tells Winston that sometimes the Ministry screws up and the victim dies — although it is not clear whether he is just saying this as part of the process.

Regardless, I decided to watch Brazil again. It certainly is a great film. But I can see why I wasn’t enthused at the time. I didn’t appreciate Terry Gilliam’s visual style when I was younger. The obsession with plastic surgery and ducts freaked out little Frank. But mostly, I was way too serious when I was that age. I think the idea of laughing my way through Nineteen Eighty-Four was offensive. As with so much about life as I have found it, these are the elements that I most like now.

In general, I think that Gilliam is too much of a visual artist to do comedy. Yet it works perfectly here. The first two acts are filled with very funny scenes. The third act is not, but that’s hardly unusual for a comedy. And Jonathan Pryce is just so likable in the film, I found myself totally absorbed — and delighted. That’s not to say everything is perfect. In particular, much more could have been done with Kim Greist as Jill Layton. (Maybe they could have brought in a female scriptwriter?) In fact, this is one of the reasons that I still think 12 Monkeys is a superior film. (Interestingly, it was co-written by a woman: Janet Peoples.)

From a political standpoint, the film works very much in accordance with the modern world. Everything is screwed up because everyone is going along with the system. Michael Palin’s character, Jack Lint, seemed evil to me when I first saw the film. Well, he is evil. But that isn’t what’s most important to his character. He’s totally afraid. Everyone is. Everyone in a position of power is worried that they will be blamed for something. This is the basis for my favorite line in the film. In discussing the wrongful arrest and death of Buttle, Lint says, “It’s not my fault that Buttle’s heart condition didn’t appear on Tuttle’s file.”

Maybe the reason that I liked the film so much this time is that I’m receptive to its message. Of late, I’ve been focused on this idea of the social system being evil and stupid in ways that no individual would be. Everybody’s just trying to get by. But in some kind bizarre anti-sum-of-the-parts, the more individuals involved, the worse the system gets. Brazil might be nominally presenting some kind of authoritarian system, but what we actually see is a libertarian system where each person doing what is in their own best interest leads to catastrophe.


I want to make note of Robert De Niro’s character, Harry Tuttle. He’s a freelance plumber — working outside the system, and so referred to as a terrorist by the government. This actually highlights the distinction between European and American libertarianism. Tuttle wants to be at liberty to do what he wants. He is not looking for the “liberty” of cornering markets and therefore controlling (destroying the liberty of) whole classes of people. This is why American libertarianism is such a joke. It has nothing to do with liberty; it is all about replacing one system of relatively benign control with another that is as bad as the world in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

10 thoughts on “Taking a Second Look at Brazil

  1. As originally shown in the USA, the film has a weird happy ending. In other versions it is clear that the protagonist is dreaming of escape. The story is told in the Criterion edition of the DVD with director’s commentary. Quite eye-opening.

    The film isn’t just about totalitarianism though or even about people’s reactions to it. It turns out that the terrorists are not real; there is no democratic opposition and the evidence Sam sees for it is due to his interpretations only. But Sam enjoys killing people once he thinks he is on the right side. This film is in its way even more dystopian than 1984 because even the good guy’s aren’t.

    I agree that 1984 (1984 version) was a very faithful adaptation. But I think that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best adaptation ever, and actually better than the book. Americans really could benefit if Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail could be made as a movie. That’s Thompson’s best book.

    • I hope that wasn’t unclear in the text. I’ve never seen the “Love Conquers All” version. I think of it kind of like the Purple Rose of Cairo ending. A lot of people think that’s a sad ending, as though she really could run off to Hollywood with the actor. To me, the most horrifying thing in 1984 is when Winston shouts, “Do it to Julia!” So I’m sure the whole thing seemed bizarre to Gilliam at the time. He had, in fact, given them a happy ending. But they wanted Sam to run off with the actor.

      You’re right: Sam is not a completely likable character. He suffers greatly from the privilege of his position. We see that in the scene when he returns the check to the widow. He says something like, “I didn’t have to do this, you know!” He isn’t horrible. But people like him are key to the system working.

      I don’t recall liking Fear and Loathing that much. But I did think that Depp came off very much the way Thompson did on paper. I’ll have to revisit it.

  2. I see that @RJ beat me to it, but I also wanted to comment on the two endings (although I haven’t seen the director’s commentary.)
    I first saw the movie with the full ending – DeNiro returning from his dream of escape, back in the chair – and thought the movie was amazing. A year or two later, I saw it again… this time with the happy ending. I felt betrayed – not because I hate happy endings, but because it seemed so completely out of joint with the rest of the movie. At the time, I didn’t know about the two versions, and simply doubted that I’d remembered my first viewing correctly. A pity that Google/Wikipedia/IMDB weren’t available at the time.

    • The rank stupidity of entertainment executives never stops amazing me. I could understand not funding “Brazil.” It’s a pretty grim movie. But once you’ve funded it, and trusted that some audiences will be drawn to its vivid dystopian visuals, why then demand Gilliam give those audiences a stupid ending?

      I saw “Brazil” when I was 13 or so. A neighbor was going on vacation and gave me a few bucks to feed her fish. The neighbor had HBO, and I must have watched “Brazil” 20 times. Also her VHS copy of “Phantom Of The Paradise.” I was a strange kid! I did feed the fish, though, they didn’t die.

    • I think the “happy” ending was only released for television. I saw it in the theater at the time, and it was Gilliam’s edit. So I guess I did cause some confusion in the article. I will see about updating it.

  3. Frank this is why you would be the one to suggest the movies since I didn’t even know this one existed.

    • I really don’t remember. But they are pretty much the same thing. It could be that I couldn’t think of HVAC at the time. Fluid going through pipes.

  4. Thanks to will for bringing this post back up, because I wanted to ask: Frank, did you hear the Gilliam “Quxote” is being resurrected? Supposedly with Palin as Quixote! That’s an idea which is either genius or disastrous…

    • I haven’t heard that. The project continues to be mysterious. Some things I’ve heard have given me hope. But mostly, I’m expecting a catastrophe.

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