Satire and Prophecy in Terry Gilliam's Brazil

Spoiler warning! If you have never seen Brazil, stray no further than the first paragraph. This brief essay discusses the ending of the film.

Like the great literary satire of the twentieth century, Brave New World, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is cutting through and through: it never retreats, yields, or is diluted. Gilliam’s satire goes so far that the world he creates, the world depicted on screen supposedly for our viewing pleasure, is in fact often repugnant and aesthetically unpleasing, not unlike Huxley’s. I like beautiful movies, but here the ugliness is neither accidental nor a flaw; it adds to the satire.

At the devastating conclusion of the film, after we have experienced the terrible final twist, that incredibly bleak revelation that there can be no escape except through insanity, we might be tempted to say that the film is a scattershot satire of our dismal times. Gilliam and company ridicule bureaucracy, consumerism, office work, terrorism, totalitarian government, plastic surgery, and propaganda, to name just some of the targets. One could even argue that the cheesy daydream sequences make the imagination itself an object of ridicule—even though the imagination is a dominant theme in Gilliam’s oeuvre, and frequently his source of hope or redemption. There is no hope or redemption in Brazil though. Sam Lowry’s flight into fancy and madness can hardly be considered a viable let alone desirable form of resistance to the system.

Despite the widespread satire at work in Brazil, I belief the focus of the film’s criticism is a world where the system is everything. In the dystopian world of the film, no one takes responsibility. Errors are blamed on other people or departments. The preservation of the system is what’s all-important. Just remember how Sam (Jonathan Pryce) must get rid of the cheque—the tangible evidence that the system has made an error. At another point in the film, while Sam is having dinner with his mother and her friends, a bomb explodes in the restaurant. The waiter simply covers up the mess of shattered tables and burnt bodies with a screen, as if it were only a minor disturbance. Even terror attacks have been absorbed into the system.

This satire of the system makes Brazil as relevant and vital as ever, in our age of Late Capitalism, when nothing matters but keeping the economy—the system—running and thriving, no matter the cost. Indeed, the film is prophetic, but like the Old Testament prophets, Gilliam does not merely make known the future, but also criticizes his, and our, corrupt present.

Brazil (UK, 1985)

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown; starring Jonathan Pryce, Katherine Helmond, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin, Ian Holm, and Bob Hoskins.