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Madness and the Search for Meaning in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’

35 Years Ago, Terry Gilliam Released Brazil

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” 

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil is one such work, employing many elements of humor that mock ones living in an existence of ignorance, whilst eventually challenging this notion by casting a tragic lesson in futility for those who seek to rise above the stifling confines of bureaucracy. 

However, while the movie does possess elements of slapstick humor, the motives behind the “Ministry of Information”, the government behind the world of Brazil, are no laughing matter. 

Within the giant ducts that hang quite literally above everyone’s head in every bedroom, restaurant and hallway, millions of pieces of paper are transported daily that reveal and revile every denizen that lives under the Ministry’s reach. Among the many whose responsibility it is to process these papers is Sam Lowry, a lowly clerk who dreams in between the daily monotony (obligatory in any 9-5 office-related occupation) of soaring amidst the clouds, saving a damsel-in-distress, and fighting a Samurai warrior, among other things. 

It is amidst this dystopian backdrop that an administrative error ends up costing the life of an innocent man, and it is because of these events that Sam eventually encounters, quite literally, the girl of his dreams, Jill, who, contrary to the long, flowing blonde hair and white robes of his visions, drives a truck all day as smoke and grime from the surrounding factories gathers in her rough features and cropped brown hair. 

While the “Ministry of Information” contains no “Big Brother” figure, it unquestionably bears the marks of totalitarian rule. When Jill tries to report the wrongful death of her neighbor, she is labelled a terrorist accomplice for reporting the mistake to a government that would rather dispose of all evidence of its failure then admit its error. 

Summarily, in order to save Jill from the Ministry, Sam falsifies her death and they meet in the privacy of his mother’s house. But, the Ministry finds them after a single, impassioned night, killing Jill after she “resists arrest” and imprisoning Sam. Sam is then rescued in a large, explosive shootout by a group of rebels. But as a flurry of administrative documents that emerges from the ruins of the building from which Sam is rescued obscures and then disintegrates his rescuer, and as Sam imagines himself and Jill living in a small cottage in the green countryside, the film cuts back to Sam still in confinement, presumably gone mad post-torture, humming the tune to Brazil.

Philip K. Dick once wrote: “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”

But that isn’t the only option either.

When a terrorist explosion rips apart a large portion of the restaurant in which Sam and his mother are sitting, the upper crust goes on eating and socializing as waiters place a large screen in front of the damage and the band raises the volume up a notch, without anyone even batting an eye. 

Sam’s eventual insanity is that mainstream, commercial madness of wide eyes and frothing mouth, but in the glint of artificial dentures and the sound of facelifted laughter of the aristocracy therein lies a very different kind of psychosis. 

Jack Lime, Sam’s friend, and possibly the main antagonist of the film, is perhaps the only major character that acknowledges and happily accepts the evils that are right in front of him, even perpetrating them himself. Married to a beautiful woman and with three children whose names he can’t quite get straight, ambitious but not particularly bright, and utterly unscrupulous, Jack is in many ways a perfect foil to Sam. 

When Sam tells Jack that the Ministry ordered Jack to torture to death the wrong man as a result of the earlier mentioned administrative error, Jack responds, “Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the *right* man. The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?”

While Sam holds his doubts in the system, Jack has complete faith in it. However, Sam is no Jill either. Despite their mutual attraction, a major dichotomy remains between the two.

Whereas Jill stands up against the “Ministry of Information” as a matter of principle, Sam uses it for his own gains throughout. When two incompetent repairmen show up at his apartment, Sam, asks them whether they have a 27B/6 so as to prevent them from going inside, and when Sam needs to access Jill’s classified records he uses the influence of his socialite mother to gain a promotion so that he can find Jill and eventually falsify her death.

Perhaps most telling is when Sam finally defeats the Samurai in his dreams, he removes its mask only to see that the face behind it is his own. As much as Sam wants to escape the system, his psyche is inextricably bound within the confines of the same bureaucracy that he despises. 

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It is Jill, the hot-headed idealist, who fights to the end, whereas Sam retreats to another world instead of facing the realities of the existence in which he lives, a world in which he can finally experience a certain brand of freedom. 

Jack (the man of the establishment) and Jill (the “terrorist” sympathizer) are the two major ideologues of the world in which they live, the two so-called truths that everyone seems to feel one way or another about. Everyone it seems, with the exception of Sam, who finds himself in a tug of war between the hopeless but idealistic machinations of rebellion, and the social and economic security of the bureaucracy in which he lives. 

And after Sam loses his mind, little has changed: the government continues to haphazardly maintain control, whilst the terrorists, with their reckless bombing of innocent civilians, have done little to shape the minds and hearts of any in their favor. 

Indeed, as the parable says: “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”

Both ideologies, that of Jack and Jill, in their search for that ultimate ideal of their visions, that holy grail bucket of water, end up back where they first began.

As the film cuts to credits, leaving Sam as empty of a shell as the cacophonous room in which he is imprisoned, this Sisyphean vision of the human condition appears to offer little solace, and, like Sam Lowry, leaves us on the precipice, torn between the clouds of his dreams and the cubicles of his reality.

But while on the subject of reality, perhaps there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Sam, when he first meets Jill face to face, says “I love you… I mean, in my dreams I love you.” Colloquially, he is referring to the dreams in which he sees Jill’s herself, but perhaps there’s a double meaning to these words that Sam himself is unwilling to believe, perhaps what he is really talking to is the alter-ego within himself, that idealistic, daring, reckless part of his psyche. 

Jack, on the other hand, is the vision that Sam sees in himself if he settled down and went with the system, the “old friend”, that side of Sam that offers security and fiscal comfort at the cost of his humanity. When Jack, after Sam finds himself in trouble with the Ministry, tells him: “We’ve always been close haven’t we? Well do me a favor and don’t come anywhere near me until this all blows over,” could it be that Sam’s “bureaucratic drone persona” is simply telling him to “buzz off”, so to speak?

Then, when Jill is supposedly killed resisting arrest, could it be in actuality the killing blow to Sam’s idealism? Perhaps it was Sam who faked his own death, presumably absolving himself of the chains of bureaucracy, only to have his hopes shattered just like the windows broken through by his captors. 

Then, in the final scene, when Sam is tortured by Jack, it can perhaps be seen as the persona burying the final knife in Sam’s ambitions to be something more than a drone, as if to say “I told you so”, and just as Sam’s earlier mentioned rescuer of his imagination is literally disintegrated by relentless paperwork, so is Sam driven to utter madness by the Jack within himself.

Image result for the truth shall make you free brazil

And so, from the perspective of the deepest fears of a man in a psychotic existential crisis personified, we see Sam is in a crisis of faith in the system, to the point where he is driven to utter madness. 

But whether or not Sam had gone mad long before his torture, conjuring up Jack and Jill as the amalgamations of his two conflicting mindsets, or whether Jack and Jill are more than figments of the imagination, the film’s message is clear: bureaucracy, in its many forms, can be an insidious killer of imagination, freedom, and, ironically, of personal rights. 

Whether or not this is true, and to what extent, is up to debate, but what shouldn’t be up for debate is how we treat our fellow humans regardless of the form of government. Sam Lowry, however, is no Robin Hood. Despite his protagonist status, he is by no means your conventional hero. His motives are selfish, repeatedly acting in his own interests as opposed to the interests of others, such as his repeated sabotage of government property, which like the actions of the terrorists, does little to endear anybody to the cause of rebellion, and if anything reinforces the Ministry’s moral high ground. 

But who can really blame his selfish tendencies? There is little if any notions of love expressed by the Ministry of Information, other than for the usual dystopian government notions of collectivism and hive-mindedness, and it is under this system that Sam finds himself.

Throughout the story, set around Christmas, the characters within the film share superficial, mass-produced presents provided to them by the government and hopes about getting their credit scores upgraded. When Santa asks one little girl what she wants for Christmas, she responds: “my own credit card!”

No analysis of a Terry Gilliam film is complete without examining the visual elements present within either. According to Ben Wheeler: a “frequent characteristic of the topography of Brazil is the tiled square, apparent in Jill’s bathroom, windows, public transportation and the torture chamber of the final scene. The square, (just like the workers within the Ministry) is considered to be the most perfect geometric form, as endlessly replicable as it is functional.”

Entertainment is another crucial visual element of the film, with televisions littering every room, both at home and in the workplace, and banal toys occupying the free time of workers idling behind the doors of grey corridors within grey buildings everywhere. 

Just like Sam, everyone else longs for the same escape, even if they aren’t as unhinged as he is. When the supervisor where Sam works returns to his office, the workers, out of sight of their boss, turn on their televisions to watch old Westerns, and, at one point, Casablanca, an obvious reference and comparison of Rick Blaine’s struggle in choosing either his love of a woman and doing his duty to Sam and the struggle with his personal Jack and Jill. 

But the brave, daring cowboys of the Western, rescuing damsels in distress and stopping evildoers are a different sort of dream for many, one that hides in plain sight, providing temporary solace from the computer screens and paperwork of day to day life under the Ministry. 

However, these dreams are held in private, for they don’t coincide with the commercial dogmatism of their reality. 

As Salman Rushdie writes in his review of the film: ‘America bombards you with dreams and deprives you of your own’…  and Brazil is about that too, the struggle between private, personal dreams like flying and love and the great mass-produced fantasies of eternal youth, material wealth and power. 

Within the film, these personal dreams are as hidden from sight as the rebellion that supposedly seeks to make such dreams known. When Sam’s own mother asks him, ‘surely you must have hopes, dreams?’ Sam responds ‘No. Not even dreams.’

But John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost that: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven,” and, in the end, at least Sam had that.

The main conflict of the film still resides in Sam’s search for what is “true,” what is meaningful in this world from which the only solace is the televisions that fill room after room, and the film leaves it for the audience to make the decision.
Near the opening of the film, a shot cuts to the Ministry’s slogan: “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” referring to the biblical quote: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’

This seems in part a criticism of religion itself, as the Ministry is not in any way held in a favorable light. Indeed, Brazil is almost unique for a major film released by a major studio, especially for the time, in respect to its brutal satire not only of religion but also of ideologies like nationalism and capitalism. Nor did such confrontations only take place within the context of the film. 

In fact, Terry Gilliam and Universal Studios soon became embroiled in one of the most significant film production conflicts in history, when Universal Studios created a different version of the film for theatrical release in the U.S in order to be more commercially successful, in which Sam actually does escape and ends up living happily ever after, known as the “Love Conquers All” version. 

The wonderful irony seems self-evident in this case, as a film that so obviously stood against the authoritarian principles of censorship and repression, was now itself being censored and repressed. 

And indeed, just like Sam, the film may have forever found itself warped, maddened to submission by the political realities of its surroundings, forever replaying over and over the way Sam and Universal Studios needed to see the world, a facade of rolling green hills and cottages and chimneys and cows. 

But, in the end, with the help of the L.A. Film Critics Association, which awarded the film the award for every available category that year, Universal Studios relented, and released the film as Gilliam intended on the 22nd of February, 1985.

In the end, Gilliam’s truth prevailed. 

So ‘what is your truth?’ the film demands to know, ‘To spend your life pursuing your own needs? Or to give everything of yourself to some great ideal? Or to forever be caught in indecision, a Sam Lowry, walking the line between idealism and realism, the empty space in between Plato and Aristotle?’

Regardless, remember, as the Ministry’s slogan reminds us all: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”

By Evan Lindeman

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Asquirrel

    February 11, 2023 at 5:26 am

    To quote the princess bride, your intellect is truly dizzying. You said a lot but I don’t follow most of what you said.

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