In continuing with last week’s review of The Empire Strikes Back—and this week’s unofficial theme of keeping posts light—I decided to jot off this quick review of a very good, very deep film, the dystopian dark comedy Brazil.
This film has been on my watch list for some time, and a timely RedBox 50% off on-demand streaming coupon made it a compelling rental for a Monday night. It was well worth the $2.15; indeed, I may even watch it again tonight, just to catch details I likely missed the first time.
The basic premise of Brazil is to envision an excessively bureaucratic society, in which filing the proper paperwork and avoiding blame—the hallmarks of any bureaucracy—matter more than doing what’s right or decent. Indeed, the highest good in the nameless society of Brazil is to keep the bureaucracy chugging along, and to wrap everything up in red tape.
The film possesses a dream-like, fantasy style—it opens with the protagonist, Sam Lowry, dreaming of being in flight as an armored angel-warrior—that contrasts with the dull, drab, grayness of the society depicted. The entire closing sequence, in which Robert De Niro’s character is literally consumed by paperwork in a symbolic devouring of the human spirit in the maw of bureaucracy, is itself a fantasy—a retreat from the harsh reality of the film’s sad finale.
Between these dreamlike bookends and interstitial fantasy sequences and daydreams are the mechanics of this brutally absurd world. Brazil is a commentary on that absurdity, which creates and harbors a million little evils and petty power struggles.
Those range from the minor inconveniences of bureaucracy, such as being told to return to an office for a stamp on a document when that office already referred the claimant to the current office, to a character murdered by the state due to a typo on a form.
That typo drives the early part of the plot. We’re introduced to Sam, a functionary and computer whiz inside the government’s massive bureaucratic apparatus, who puts out fire for his frazzled supervisor. The supervisor panics when he’s sent a reimbursement check for the cost of the execution of Archibald Buttle, the man killed because of a typo (the government wanted to apprehend Archibald Tuttle, a renegade air-conditioner repairman whose crime is fixing air-conditioners as a freelancer). The supervisor breaking down over the most routine bureaucratic tasks highlights the extreme risk-avoidance of any bureaucracy—the goal is to avoid blame over all else.
Sam offers to relieve his boss’s stress by driving the check out to Buttle’s widow. He cheerfully scoots along in a government-issued mini-car, heading into the slums of the city. When he goes to give the Widow Buttle the check, she tearfully demands to know what has become of her husband’s body. Meanwhile, street urchins torch Sam’s car.
Thus Sam is shaken from his complacency, albeit gradually. The encounter with the widow literally haunts him, as he experiences nightmares about her and the impoverished slum dwellers. While at the widow’s flat, he also sees Jill Layton, the woman he’s been fantasizing about in his dreams, and begins using his bureaucratic access to find out more about her.
The film also delves into the crass materialism of this world. Sam’s wealthy, well-connected mother and her friends are obsessed with plastic surgery and defying age, to the point that the mother’s friend dies from “complications to my complications” from her constant surgeries. When Sam enters a church near the end of the film, it’s a gaudy, garish simulacrum of Christianity—a massive angel statue, neon lights, and a pink coffin tied in a ribbon.
Even the stores and restaurants are bureaucratic nightmares. Sam orders a steak at lunch, but the waiter insists—with increasing aggression—that Sam say the number of his order (“Number Three,”) not just the name of the item. The society is so locked into its bureaucratic mindset, the waiter can’t deviate from the script one iota, even if “I want a steak” is functionally the same as “I want Number Three.” At that lunch, a terrorist bombing kills and injures a number of diners, but Sam’s mother and friend continuing chattering on while obsequious waiters put up a barrier lest the well-heeled diners endure the unpleasantness of the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
There is so much more to this film to discuss. It explores so many ideas: the cruel, corrupt, absurd nature of bureaucracy; the vast gap between the elites within that bureaucracy and the people they allegedly serve; the emptiness of consumerism as a distraction from the people’s accepted oppression (when the police—the Department of Information Retrieval—come to arrest Buttle, Mrs. Buttle objects, but dutifully signs the necessary paperwork).
What I found so compelling—and depressing—about the movie is how accurate so much of it is. We might not call the bureaucrats at Central Services to fix our broken machinery, but we certainly live in a state of increased officiousness and reduced independence. Our elites are indifferent and aloof, and the government exists not to help the people it allegedly serves, but to perpetuate its own existence and sinecures.
The United States still maintains its rural idylls—the vision in Sam’s lobotomized dream at the end of the film—but we increasingly have surrendered liberty for material abundance. We have willingly becomes slaves; we have become Brazil.
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