The Brilliance of Brazil: Why Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece is more relevant than ever

George Orwell’s 1984 is, without doubt, one of the most influential books ever written in the English language. Incidentally, it is also one of the most misunderstood, and one of the most over-quoted. Despite the fact that “Orwellian” has entered the popular lexicon as a by-word for “government that I dislike”, bandied about carelessly by liberals, libertines and libertarians alike, Orwell’s views were far more complex than are often realized. A critic of both capitalism and the socialist tendency to tear down tradition, a passionate defender of English cuisine, an anti-nationalist, and an avowed patriot, Orwell was very much a man for his time, and only by understanding the man behind it can we hope to understand 1984’s true messages.

Misrepresentation of a complex political thinker is hardly the greatest sin induced by 1984, though. No, that dubious distinction goes to the terrible tendency of subsequent dystopian fiction to iterate endlessly upon the book’s portrayal of dystopia. 1984’s hyperbole, bound in a narrow criticism of the Soviet Union under Stalin, sees a competent, malicious government ruling over a thoroughly ideological, entirely brainwashed populace. An appropriate criticism, perhaps, of the kind of totalitarianism seen in outlier states, but not a particularly prescient account of how oppressive dystopias manifest themselves in the real world – most often, through incompetence, bureaucracy, cowardice, and by playing upon the self-preservative instincts of those who propagate it.

No, if it’s a worryingly accurate, terrifyingly pertinent dystopia that you’re looking for, look no further than Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). For those unfamiliar – and, given the film’s shameful unpopularity, this will be most of you -, Brazil takes 1984’s idea of dystopia, combines it with a Kafkaesque perspective on bureaucracy and the humour of Monty Python and Yes, Minister¸ wraps it in Gilliam’s retrofuturist aesthetic (think The Jetsons, but everything goes wrong), and overlays it all on top of a soundtrack inspired by both the bossa nova of the 1970s, and the very best of George Gershwin. If this sounds like your cup of tea, stop reading, and watch the film. The best way to experience Brazilis tabula rasa, and much of the clever detail is lost in a broad account of the film’s themes. If you’re here for the cinematic analysis, though, then read on, and discover why Brazil is far more deserving of a place in our popular frame of reference than 1984ever has been.

In brief, Brazil follows low-level civil service minion Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), as he navigates the monotony of a near-future world obsessed with bureaucracy and overregulation, and frequently retreats into a reoccurring (and symbolism-laden) daydream, which sees him as a mythical hero who fights to save a beautiful damsel-in-distress. The actual story of the film focuses initially on a wrongful arrest, and on Sam’s attempts to remedy the situation, in the face of the government machine, which see him cross paths with Jill, a woman eerily resembling the one in his dreams, and the neighbour of the wrongfully arrested man. We see the sanctity of a family home at Christmastime shattered by a militant police force, who nevertheless couch their arrest in the language of “an invitation to assist with questioning”, on the basis of a typo – the man’s name was one letter removed from that of a prominent terrorist.

In turn, nobody in government will take responsibility for the typo. Whether it’s Sam’s cowardly, spiteful middle-manager in the Records Department, his colleagues, who care more about the appearance of hard work than the virtue of it, or the Minister for Information himself, so swamped by proposals that he prefers a quick decision to a considered one, it’s these very human, very understandable impulses that see that justice is never done for the wrongfully arrested man. Nobody that we meet wishes to hurt Archibald Buttle, but each is too cowardly, too self-serving, or too busy to care that the police should instead have arrested Archibald Tuttle, and the result is a grieving family, denied answers, and a man tortured for no good reason.

This mindset is perhaps best expressed by Jack Lint (played Michael Palin), old friend of Sam’s, and a picture-perfect view of the kind of unscrupulous, squeaky-clean careerist that many of us will be intimately familiar with. In his office, that of a government approved torture, Lint rejects Sam’s protestations that he’s torturing the wrong man – “no,” he insists, “I got the wrong man delivered to me as the right man, which means that I got the right man.”

Few of Brazil’s characters feel oppressed by the world in which they live, and almost none seem to be driven by great ideological investment in the regime’s policies or structures. More often, it’s complacency, blame-shifting, or personal ambition that turn the ruthless cogs of Brazil’s oppression, to the detriment of normal people. Each feels satisfied that as long as they abide religiously to the letter of their individual duty, the system as a whole will produce the right results. It is not the totalitarian law that needs to be feared, says Brazil, but the hemming in of people by a great volume of petty regulation, and the human tendency to follow the letter of the law in fear of rebuke, even when the consequences are undesirable. Mistakes are unconscionable – we’re the government, after all, and we have these procedures for a reason -, and when they do happen, the blame-shifting game ensures that nothing ever gets put right.

Gilliam constructs his world as a perfect complement to the themes explored in the story. We see cramped apartments and suburbia long forsaken, a stark contrast with the grimly beautiful government buildings inhabited by Sam and his peers. The omnipresent Central Services, very much the exemplar of the faceless corporate conglomerate, is never too far from view, an eerily accurate critique of government-permitted corporate monopolies, the nefarious interplay between the corporate and the governmental, and the worrying tendency of companies to channel our desire for an identity into a desire to express this through meaningless capitalist consumption. The advertising that we see plastered on the film’s billboards sells a kind of creepy utopia, extolling the values of “being in it together”, while often literally hiding from the view the desolation that the government has wreaked on the countryside through its ceaseless commitment to exploiting the natural resources of the land. The terrorist violence which weaves itself throughout the story is consistently used by government as an excuse to harden and harshen its interactions with the people, but it’s never clear if there really is any resistance to the government, or if the explosions that we see are simply a result of the advanced technology of this world going wrong, as it often does.

One scene, in which an alleged terrorist attack happens while Sam is out at lunch with his mother and her socialite friends, explores the stunted social life of a high society so focused on appearing to be attractive and tasteful that it spends all of its time keeping up appearances, mostly by spending on things that it doesn’t really understand. Midway through their meal, an explosion shakes the restaurant, and a partition is quickly erected, with the staff assuring the guests that such an inconvenience is quite unforeseen, and most unusual. While heavily militarized police storm the restaurant, indiscriminately manhandling the staff, the rich socialites nod gormlessly along to these assurances, either blissfully ignorant of the problems around them, or obsessed with appearing to be above hysteria.

The film’s focus on escapism is similarly complementary, with Sam’s dreams exploring his psyche in vivid style. The reoccurring motif of the bossa nova classic Aquarela do Brasil, for which the film is named, highlights Gilliam’s attempt to grapple with the role of escapism in the inquisitive mind – when is it okay to switch off to the ills of the world, and think about some faraway tropical paradise? The song, known in English as Brazil, is about a watercolour painting of Brazil, which romanticizes and glorifies the country – in other words, an idealized illusion of somewhere more desirable, but which ultimately cannot be reached. At the news of more terrorist violence on his car radio, Sam switches over to the song, preferring blissful ignorance to informed worry.

And at the film’s conclusion, when Sam’s association with Jill finally comes back to bite him, we see perhaps the most terrifying messages of all. Sped through a ruthless and faceless justice system, in which he is encouraged to comply with interrogation “for the sake of [his] credit score”, Sam eventually succumbs to the literal torture that Jack subjects him to, losing his mind in the process. The film closes with Sam lost in a fantasy of his own making, humming along to the film’s titular song – broken, but happy. His ignorance of the world around him gives him bliss, and he only truly reaches happiness when he stops being able to care. A fittingly bittersweet end to a film with such a bleak outlook – Sam’s Aquarela do Brasil is in his own head.

If a government that is mostly so uncaring towards its own people because of its facelessness and obsession with following mindless procedures sounds familiar, it should. So, too, should a world of great technological advances (none of which seem to work properly), in which our desire for identity is increasingly channelled towards consumerist ends, and in which the very rich are insulated from the realities of our troubling situation. Despite being more than thirty years old, Brazil is very much a dystopian story for our times, and its warnings ought to be heeded far more closely than the exaggerated fears stoked by 1984 and its ideological offspring. Watch the film, enjoy the typically sharp Gilliam sense of humour, reflect on how much of the film’s messaging hits worryingly close to home – and spread the word about this criminally underrated gem.