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Brazil is a 1985 film directed by Terry Gilliam. It was written by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard and stars Jonathan Pryce. The film also features Robert De Niro, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, and Ian Holm. John Scalzi's Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies describes the film as a "dystopian satire".

The film centers on Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a young man trying to find a woman who appears in his dreams while he is working in a mind-numbing job and living a life in a small apartment, set in a dystopian world in which there is an over-reliance on poorly maintained (and rather whimsical) machines. Brazil's bureaucratic, totalitarian government is reminiscent of the government depicted in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, except that it has a buffoonish, slap-stick quality and lacks a 'Big Brother' figure.

Jack Mathews, movie critic and author of The Battle of Brazil (1987), described the film as "satirizing the bureaucratic, largely dysfunctional industrial world that had been driving Gilliam crazy all his life". Though a success in Europe, the film was unsuccessful in its initial North America release. It has since become a cult film.

The film is named after the recurrent theme song, "Aquarela do Brasil".


Set in a fictionalised version of Britain, the film follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a low-level government employee who has frequent daydreams of saving a beautiful maiden. One day he is assigned the task of trying to rectify an error created by a government mishap, causing the incarceration and execution of Mr. Archebald Buttle instead of the suspected terrorist, Archebald "Harry" Tuttle. When Sam visits Buttle's widow, he discovers Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the upstairs neighbor of the Buttles, is the same woman as in his dreams. Jill is trying to help Mrs Buttle find out what happened to her husband, but has gotten sick of dealing with the bureaucracy. Unbeknownst to her, she is now considered a terrorist friend of Tuttle for trying to report the mistake of Buttle's arrest in Tuttle's place to bureaucrats that would not admit such a mistake. When Sam tries to approach her, she is very cautious and avoids giving Sam full details, worried the government will track her down. During this time, Sam comes in contact with the real Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a renegade air conditioning specialist who once worked for the government but left due to the amount of paperwork. Tuttle helps Sam deal with two government workers who are taking their time fixing the broken air conditioning in Sam's apartment.

Sam determines the only way to learn about Jill is to transfer to "Information Retrieval" where he would have access to her classified records. He requests the help of his mother Ida (Katherine Helmond), vainly addicted to rejuvenating plastic surgery under the care of cosmetic surgeon Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent), as she has connections to high ranking officers and is able to help her son get the position. Delighted that her son has finally shown ambition despite having arranged for promotions before, Sam's mother arranges for Sam to be promoted into the Information Retrieval division. Sam eventually obtains Jill's records and tracks her down before she is arrested, then falsifies her records to make her appear deceased, allowing her to escape the bureaucracy. The two share a romantic night together before Sam is apprehended by the government at gun-point for misusing his position.

Sam is restrained to a chair in a large, empty cylindrical room, to be tortured by his old friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin), as he is now considered part of an assumed terrorist plot including Jill and Tuttle. However, before Jack can start, Tuttle and other members of the resistance break in to the Ministry. The resistence shoots Jack, rescues Sam, and blows up the Ministry building as they flee. Sam and Tuttle run off together, but Tuttle disappears amid a mass of scraps of paper from the destroyed Ministry. Sam runs to his mother attending a funeral for a friend that died of excessive cosmetic surgery. Finding her mother now looking like Jill and fawned over by a flock of juvenile admirers, Sam falls into the open casket, finding it to be bottomless. He lands in a world from his daydreams, and attempts escape up a pile of flex-ducts from the police and imaginary monsters. He finds a door at the top of the pile, and passing through it, is surprised to find himself in a trailer driven by Jill. The two drive away from the city together.

However, it is revealed this happy ending is all happening inside Sam's head; Sam is still strapped to the chair under observation by Jack and of Deputy Minister Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughan). Realizing that Sam appears catatonic, a smile on his face and humming "Brazil", the two declare Sam a lost case, and exit the room as the film closes.




Gilliam developed the story and wrote the first draft of the screenplay with Charles Alverson, who was paid for his work but ultimately uncredited in the final film. Gilliam, McKeown, and Stoppard collaborated on further drafts. Brazil was developed under the titles The Ministry and 1984 ½, the latter a nod not only to Orwell's original 1984 but also to Federico Fellini's , a director whom Gilliam often cites as one of the defining influences for his stunning and stylistic visuals when it comes to directing. During the film's production, other working titles floated about, including The Ministry of Torture, How I Learned to Live with the System - So Far, and So That's Why the Bourgeoisie Sucks, before settling with Brazil relating to the name of its escapist signature tune (but also note Brazil ).

Gilliam sometimes refers to this film as the second in his "Trilogy of Imagination" movies, starting with Time Bandits (1981) and ending with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). All are about the "craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible." All three movies focus on these struggles and attempts to escape them through imagination; Time Bandits, through the eyes of a child, Brazil, through the eyes of a man in his thirties, and Munchausen, through the eyes of an elderly man.

Gilliam has stated that Brazil was inspired by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four—which he has admitted never having read—but is written from today's perspective rather than looking to the future as Orwell did. In Gilliam's words, his film was "the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984."


Robert De Niro originally wanted to play Jack, but Gilliam had already promised the role to Michael Palin. De Niro still wanted to be in the film, and so was cast as Tuttle instead.

Terry Gilliam's daughter Holly Gilliam plays Jack Lint's daughter Holly.

Art design

Logo of the Ministry of Information
Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice wrote, "Gilliam understood that all futuristic films end up quaintly evoking the naive past in which they were made, and turned the principle into a coherent comic aesthetic." The result has been dubbed "retro-futurism" by fellow film-makers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Generally called "sci-fi noir," it is "a view of what the 1980s might have looked at viewed from the perspective of a 1940s filmmaker." It is an eclectic yet coherent mixture of styles and production designs derived from Fritz Lang's films (particularly Metropolis and M) or film noir pictures starring Humphrey Bogart: "On the other hand, Sam's reality has a '40s noir feel. Some sequences are shot to recall images of Humphrey Bogart on the hunt and one character (Harvey Lime) may be named as an homage to The Third Man's Harry Lime." A number of reviewers also saw a distinct influence of German Expressionism, as the 1920s seminal, more nightmarish, predecessor to 1940s film noir, in general in how Gilliam made cunning use of lighting and set designs.

This eclectic virtuosity and attention to detail in lighting and set design was coupled with Gilliam's trademark obsession for very wide lenses and tilted camera angles; going unusually wide for an audience used to mainstream Hollywood productions, Gilliam made the film's wide-angle shots with 14mm (Zeiss), 11mm, and 9.8mm (Kinoptic) lenses, the latter being a recent technological innovation at the time as one of the first lenses of that short a focal length that didn't fish-eye. In fact, over the years, the 14mm lens has become informally known as "The Gilliam" among film-makers due to the director's frequent use of it since Brazil.

One visual element which figures prominently in the movie is the duct, specifically the snakelike "flex-ducts" used in modern construction. The film opens with an advertisement for different styles of ducting available for homes, seen on a display of television sets in a shop, which is then blown up in a terrorist bombing.

Sam's apartment is dominated by a wall consisting entirely of metal panels which conceal a complex air-conditioning system, and the guerrilla mechanic Tuttle is the only person able to tame it. Later, Sam lunches in a restaurant dominated by a giant centerpiece where the "flowers" are actually flex-ducts. Still later, when Sam makes a potentially seditious nighttime visit to his office, the emptiness of the government building's gigantic lobby is set off by maintenance men's floor buffing machines, trailing long cords of flex-duct.

In the working-class Buttle home, the family have to live their lives while giving way to ducts that in fact hinder their daily activities. In Sam's home, the ducts are not visible initially, but make their presence felt as an undertone, particularly when they break down. In the Department of Records, the ducts are a visible part of the environment, but above everyone's heads. Finally, in the dreaded Ministry of Information, there are very few ducts.


Ary Barroso's 1939 song "Aquarela do Brasil" ("Watercolor of Brazil", often simply "Brazil") in a version specifically performed by Geoff Muldaur is the leitmotif of the movie, although other background music is also utilized. Michael Kamen, who scored the music, originally recorded "Brazil" with vocals by Kate Bush. This recording was not included in the actual film or the original soundtrack release; however, it has been subsequently released on re-pressings of the soundtrack.


The tale Gilliam relates in Brazil takes a darkly-humored look at consumerism as a totalitarian society's prescribed lulling distraction from its inherent inhumanity. In outdoor scenes, many people are repeatedly seen moving full shopping trolleys in the streets. In one scene, a person leading a brass band is holding a sign that reads, "Consumers for Christ", while a young girl is asked what she wants for Christmas, and the swift reply is "My own credit card!" While Sam is being strapped to a chair, about to be tortured, a police officer tells him, "Don't fight it son! Confess quickly, or you'll jeopardize your credit rating."

Similarly, the elevation of meaningless considerations of status and vanity over personal happiness and well-being is continuously portrayed throughout the movie. Sam's mother and her friend, Mrs. Terrain, as part of this world's high society, undergo a number of cosmetic surgeries in a seemingly addicted fashion to look young and beautiful. Even when terrorist bombing attacks are occurring nearby, all they care about are most recent surgery catalog prices.

In Brazil, Sam is not so much beset by malicious characters as he is by a vast, impersonal, and indifferent social structure that is both hypocritical and pedantic for its own sake. Most of the individual villains are neither malicious nor sadistic, they are merely doing their jobs. Consequently, a major theme is the absurdity of the anonymous, ritualized, and soulless machinery that make up the absurd necessities of adult life in modern society. This absurd, anonymous machinery is apparent in the fact that the film's whole plot is set into motion by a (quite literal) bug in the system that nobody is aware of. In the end, nobody but the viewer has a full grasp of the events that occurred and all of their causes, or how each central person fits in there. Sam, as the most perceptive character, only came across pieces to the puzzle by a row of accidents, while being entirely focused on finding, then saving his love interest; Jill is seemingly oblivious to her endangered situation until her very last minute in the film, and probably of her life; and Jack, as well as the system behind him as embodied by Mr. Helpmann, have built up an elaborate yet self-delusional tale of sabotage and terrorism to explain away the bugs of their own making. Additionally illustrating this world of absurd, automated necessities are the various Rube Goldberg machines, such as those in Sam's own flat, that have fully automated everyday life.

Most highlighting this absurdity, the film's most dark tragicomic twist from the very beginning is that "it may be argued that the existence of 'terrorists' in the film (i.e., Jill Layton, Buttle/Tuttle, and Sam are all accused of being terrorists) [...] [is] deliberately made ambiguous [...]. Viewers must interpret this central theme of the film for themselves - and recognize the fact that ironically -- there may be no terrorists at all." It is obvious already from a superficial first viewing of the film that Sam's love interest Jill has nothing to do with the various bombings. At closer examination, we are neither given any evidential link between subversive heating engineer Harry Tuttle and these terrorist acts that the government accuses him of - he only carries a handgun for self-protection, and the only time he is actually in charge of a bombing is later revealed as but one of Sam's dream sequences. On top of it all, as we never see who's really responsible for the bombings, "it is very probable that the central threat of terrorism is the government's way to silence deviation, provoke fear, cover up its multiple errors, and provide a scapegoat enemy."


Theatrical releases

The movie was produced by Arnon Milchan's company Embassy International Pictures (not to be confused with Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures). Gilliam's original cut of the film is 142 minutes long and ends on a dark note. This version was released internationally outside the US by 20th Century Fox.

US distribution was handled by Universal. Universal executives thought the ending tested poorly, and Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg insisted on dramatically re-editing the film to give it a happy ending, a decision that Gilliam resisted vigorously. As with the cult science fiction film Blade Runner (1982), which had been released three years earlier, a version of Brazil was created by the movie studio with a more consumer-friendly ending. After a lengthy delay with no sign of the film being released, Gilliam took out a full-page ad in the trade magazine Variety urging Sheinberg to release Brazil in its intended version. Eventually, after Gilliam conducted private screenings (without the studio's approval), Brazil was awarded the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for "Best Picture", which prompted Universal to finally agree to release a modified 131-minute version supervised by Gilliam, in 1985.

Video releases

In North America, the film was released on VHS and Laserdisc in the 131-minute US version. A slightly modified 142-minute version of the original European cut was first made available in a 5-disc Criterion Collection laserdisc box set in 1996, and is currently available on DVD (referred to in the director's commentary as the "fifth and final cut", it uses the American cloud opening instead of a stark blank screen setting the time and place).

Sheinberg's edit, the 94-minute so-called "Love Conquers All" version, was shown on syndicated television and was first made available for sale to consumers as a separate disc in the Criterion laserdisc box set, and subsequent DVD three-disc set in 1999 (both of which also featured a special video documentary version of Jack Mathews' book, with new Gilliam interviews and tape-recorded interviews from Sid Sheinberg for the original book).

The box set presents the feature film in its correct aspect ratio for the first time, but the version on the original DVD release is not enhanced for newer widescreen TVs. New 16:9-enhanced editions of the film in both a complete set and separate film-only disc were re-issued on DVD by Criterion on September 5, 2006.

Critical response

The film has a 98% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, with 39 out of 40 reviewers giving positive reviews. It has received a score of 88 on Metacritic, based on 12 reviews.

Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert disliked it, giving it 2 out of 4 stars, saying it "is awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline," as well as, "The movie is very hard to follow. I have seen it twice, and am still not sure exactly who all the characters are, or how they fit." Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan described the film as "the most potent piece of satiric political cinema since Dr. Strangelove". Janet Maslin of The New York Times was very positive towards the film upon its release. She stated, "Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a jaunty, wittily observed vision of an extremely bleak future, is a superb example of the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas, even solemn ones."

In 2004 Total Film named Brazil the 20th greatest British movie of all time. In 2005 Time film reviewers Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel named Brazil in an unordered list of the 100 best films of all time. In 2006 Channel 4 voted Brazil one of the "50 Films to See Before You Die", shortly before its broadcast on FilmFour.

Wired ranked Brazil number 5 in its list of the top 20 sci-fi movies. Entertainment Weekly listed Brazil as the sixth best science-fiction piece of media released since 1982. The magazine also ranked the film #13 on their list of "The Top 50 Cult Films".

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards; for Original Screenplay and Best Art Direction (Norman Garwood, Maggie Gray)According to Gilliam in an interview with Clive James in his online programme Talking in the Library, to his surprise Brazil is apparently a favorite film of the far Right in America.

Cultural references to other works

  • During the escape from the ministry building near the end of the film, government soldiers parody the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence from the film The Battleship Potemkin. Instead of a baby carriage rolling down the stairs after the Tsar's soldiers kill the mother, a janitor's vacuum cleaner rolls down the steps soon after the janitor is killed.
  • The film often mentions an ambiguous form called 27B/6. 27B Canonbury Squaremarker was George Orwell's address in Londonmarker during the period in which he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.


The technology of Brazil inspired the design of Max Cohen's apartment in the film π.

Other films that drew inspiration from Brazil's cinematography, set designs, sense of satire, and/or overall bleak, surreal atmosphere include Jean-Pierre Jeunet's and Marc Caro's two films Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995), and the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Brazil has been recognized as an inspiration for writers and artists of the steampunk sub-culture.


Further reading

  • Jack Matthews, The Battle of Brazil (1987), ISBN 0-517-56538-2.

External links

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