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  • Writer's pictureThaïs Castralli

wkly inspiration #8: Brazil (1985)

Brazil (1985) is a psychedelic neo-noir dream to tackle a dystopian retro-future in which bureaucracy reigns absolute. Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece of dark humor and visual absurdity is the perfect approach to a nightmarish reality that seems all too uncomfortably familiar.

It is an unexpected Christmas movie and I chose it to follow the footsteps of The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to close the selection of unusual holiday films for this period of the year.

I just had the opportunity of watching Brazil on the big screen at the Egyptian Theatre. The pristine print presented by the American Cinematheque brought production design and cinematography to life. Those are two vital departments, in my opinion, since they are necessary in the creation of the universe presented. They do it so masterfully that the symbiosis of elements from distinct eras and lighting patent to different periods is at the same time seamless and a noticeable and majestic feast for the eyes.

The different elements in art and lighting range from the 1920s to the 1980s - when the movie was produced. Roaring 20s extravagant attires appear on the rich, as well as art deco in architecture and decoration. 1930s expressionistic lighting shares space with moody noir atmosphere from the 1940s. The 1930s glamour is stamped on walls with the faces of silver screen divas and the dream of beauty and fame perpetuated by the richest tier’s evening gowns as well. Meanwhile, the noir look is also present on the government agents’ wardrobe. Borrowed from 1950s melodramas are the outfits from the always buying middle class in the movie and the Norman Rockwell style of propaganda billboards that sell the concept of American splendor. The final type of wardrobe explored in the film is retro-futuristic army suits to represent the armed forces and the rebellion group, separating them from the color palette of other decades. Just like out of any 1980s post-apocalyptic dystopia, the rebels wear minimal combat outfits and rags that distances them from the outdated reproduction of the past.

The idea of outdated fashion is also portrayed by the retro-tech that recycles electronics from the own decade of the movie in a futuristic yet inefficient exaggeration that would render them obsolete. It is both sign of technical knowledge by the government agents and archaic practices.

Finally, the colorful neons hint to the modern times, wrapping up a collage of recycled decades. The movie ingests visual expression from different periods and synthesizes a mixture of eras that perfectly represents the perpetuation of old practices disregarding human development in the social stratification.

This synthesis is so absurd that unusual elements continue to be incorporated to wardrobe or narrative without having explicit attention called to themselves just because they become part of this fantastical world.

The story takes place before Christmas, which is actually a narrative tool. It is especially used to connect the protagonist with his romantic interest over a package the later states it is a Christmas present, but our main character believes her to be a rebel and may be carrying a bomb.

The placement on the holidays adds an extra layer of irony to the narrative, provided characters are continuously offering best wishes for the season while the world around them is falling apart. Elements relating to Christmas, like wardrobe, ornaments, or even the jolly disposition of characters themselves adds a caustic humor to certain scenes, since it mostly shares space with gruesome moments.

The Christmas decorations are also an additional level of visual pollution and absurdity to the setting.

Finally, the narrative taking place before Christmas allows the portrayal of the always-busy-shopping-middle-class, oblivious to everything else.

{The oblivious middle-class shopping while a member of the rebellion is smothered by paperwork}

It is typical to encounter sci-fi movies from the1970s and 1980s that portray the future decades with echoes of their own veery specific fashion and decor, especially when regarding dystopian futures and the post-apocalyptic new order. Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, however, is never expressly said to be taking place in the future. Actually, the beginning of the movie presents the titles: “somewhere in the 20th century”. And that is exactly where the narrative takes the spectator: a journey through an amalgam of decades from the 20th century. Therefore, Brazil takes place in a retro-future where technology and social experience from different periods are blended together in quantities regarding its redundancy and inefficiency, following the recipe of bureaucracy.

{A curious act is that the digital versions of this movie present the title cards on top of clouds during the intro sequence. For the 35mm print screening, the titles appear over a black screen - they come up as they are typed in as if in one of the movie’s computers}

I am aware I have spent almost this entire analysis discussing the world created by Gilliam to place his powerful political and social critique, without touching its plot. However, such a well crafted setting to symbolize the world of absurdities ruled by an oppressive regime standing on top of a myriad of departments and their inefficient bureaucracy procedures, enforced by the violent government task forces to erase citizens, could not have been built for a plot story other than that of a law-abiding citizen engendered in the system and working for it, who sees life as he knows collapse when his dreams of love and achievement clash with his awake from blissful ignorance over a world ruled by a hideously broken bureaucracy, under assault by unknown terrorists, and compensating with kidnapping and torture. This is Sam Lowry, played by Jonathan Pryce, who is content with his employment by one of the governmental agencies. We know he is a competent employee for he is considering his promotion to a more prestigious department. He is considerate to his insecure boss who does not want to see him go, while considering the powerful connections his mother has with the influential members of authoritative powers. The opening sequence leads to a lower class home being raided by government masked forces. Head of the family Archibald Buttle is an innocent man being arrested, to the horror of his family. After having Buttle swept away to his death, Sam’s office realizes the mistake, and attempts to refund his widow for the money charged to his account to pay for Buttle’s incarceration and torture. The actual man they were looking for is Tuttle - accused of going against the system. In the middle of this horror, Sam daydreams that he’s a knight in shining armor (and wings!), trying to save a woman from monstrous dark forces. When real-life Jill (Kim Greist), the neighbor of wrongly incarcerated Buttle, heads to Sam’s office to place a complaint on the error, Sam realizes his dream woman exists and starts a pursuit after her that will open his eyes to injustice and senseless violence.

Brazil is the perfect combination of the themes and visual allegories present in George Orwell’s 1984, Franz Kafka’s work on universes oriented by absurd logic - set in motion by bureaucracy itself -, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The common points in all those inspiration pieces that Terry Gilliam’s so masterfully joins with an analytical dark humor is that the system is a self-perpetuating machine, its constant surveillance of the citizen, and the insignificance of the ordinary man against the machine.

Within this dream of opulent spaces, office partitions, and wastelands, Terry Gilliam bursts open the walls and exposes pipes and tubes throughout the whole city - in houses, on the streets, etc. According to Gilliam, people don’t pay attention to what is inside the walls in their homes, or under their floors: pipes and technology. Cutting open the walls and floors of houses and exploring the pipes as a “technological” solution, he employs them to connect the city. We see as pipes are taking messages between government agencies, and departments, but at the same time the open tubes that pop up on the streets are used as garbage disposals. The presence of those elements everywhere works in two levels: they are a visual reminder of the continuous surveillance (taking place inside our homes without us even minding the existence of technology running through our walls), and express the idea that those intricate systems are worthless - their excess makes them purposeless.

The movie actually opens presenting the pipes in the most commercial fashion possible, which makes the viewer aware of their existence right away - calling attention to how visually present they are in this world and how intrinsically connected they are to the narrative throughout the movie:

Being from Brazil myself and having film lovers as peeps and colleagues, I assure you I have heard all funny and astute remarks on how accurate Brazil … the movie, is in comparison to Brazil ... the country. Although I can find the comments amusing, unfortunately I am of the belief that Brazil, the movie, is closer to the reality of Brazil, the country, than I would ever want to admit. And I do state this with great sorrow. The political schematics in play in Brazil, the country, are so deeply rooted into a corrupt system of practices that, to me, it does not matter we are no longer living through a dictatorship regime, because the senseless bureaucracy that infiltrates everyday life - from the government machine to a small commercial transaction - relentlessly diminishes the significance of the citizen as an active social agent and perpetuates social underdevelopment.

I do not wish to turn this weekly inspiration into a socio-political analysis based on my own experiences of the inefficiencies of public bureaucracies in Brazil … the country. I am sure that many colleagues from different places can easily sympathize with a corrupt state of affairs in their own countries that is inexplicably repeated by all tiers of society, despite how much it deeply impacts the average citizen. However, the actually political turmoil Latin America as a whole found itself in at the time, dealing with late dictatorship, was influential for the production of the film. I ask the reader not to take my word for Brazil, the movie, being inspired by Brazil … the country. I offer you, instead, Mr. Gilliam’s own words:

“I find it very odd [when] people say that they see this [Brazil] in the science fiction section, because I don’t think it’s science fiction. At the time, it was more of a documentary as far as I know”.

This excerpt is from an interview given by the director in 2014, upon reviewing the movie after some time (the link for full interview is shared at the end of this post).

I find it interesting that with his shrewd and comical remark, Gilliam points to the lack of attention to a problem with no solution two decades later. His analysis of his dark comedy, retro futuristic nightmarish way of portraying a reality that is a nightmare itself as a documentary rather than a sci-fi does not scrutinize the level of symbolism in the visual representation and character depiction, for it is the most insightful social critique the author can offer to connect fiction and reality in this case.

To conclude this weekly inspiration moving away from the political analysis and back to the visual discussion, I wish to share two of my favorite moments from this movie. Curiously enough they feature a typical character of the season, so it seems like the perfect note to end this sequence of unusual holiday movies:

Happy Holidays!

BFI interview with Terry Gilliam from 2014, mentioned in this post:

Thank you for reading!

And thank you for the support.

Weekly inspirations will return in February 2020.

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