Dream sequences and surrealist imagery have been staples of Terry Gilliam’s work throughout. His 1985 film, Brazil, is no different, managing to find the funny side of a totalitarian state dominated by bureaucracy, rife with terrorism, obsessed with image and consuming (in one scene, a child tells a department store Santa that they want their own credit card for Christmas). As dysfunctional as it is dystopian, the world of Brazil is bleak and industrial, filled with constantly malfunctioning, retro-futuristic machines.
The film follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a low level government employee at the Ministry of Information. In his dreams, Sam wears shining armour and giant feathered wings, flying over the English countryside towards a beautiful woman in flowing white drapes. Sam’s world, dominated by huge industrial buildings, is claustrophobic and oppressive, but in his dreams, he soars over a verdant landscape. This parallels the myth of Icarus. In order to escape from the tyrannical King Minos, Icarus made wings out of feathers but he flew too close to the sun, the wax holding his wings together melted and he fell to his death. The same curiosity which leads Icarus to fly too close to the sun also leads Sam to fly too close to Jill. What Sam envisions as his salvation leads to his eventual downfall; his aspirations to be with Jill will be brought crashing down by the grim facts of reality.
Brazil consistently twists the concepts of age and death. The upper echelons of society are obsessed with holding onto their youth.
In Sam’s third dream, he first encounters shambling zombie-like creatures wearing baby face masks. These masked creatures represent his enemies, lifeless bureaucrats who deal in death and misery. The same mask is worn by Jack Lint whilst he is torturing Sam. Lint’s ‘customers’ tend to die at his hands, but he wears the mask of a baby as a symbol of life and renewal. Brazil consistently twists the concepts of age and death. The upper echelons of society are obsessed with holding onto their youth. In one scene, Sam’s mother, totally transformed by plastic surgeon Dr Jaffe, stands surrounded by young suitors, attending the funeral of her friend, whose death was a result of experimental cosmetic surgery (‘There’s been a little complication with my complication‘ explains Mrs. Terrain). While the old desperately cling to their youth, the young are corrupted by the adult world, at one point Lint’s young daughter says to Sam “Put it on, big boy. I won’t look at your willy.”
Sam faces another masked enemy in later dreams, this time in the form of a giant metal samurai which disappears and reappears as Sam tries to strike it. The samurai represents the technological colossus, the totalitarian state, as vast and unconquerable as it is impossible to pin down and hurt. We see the samurai standing atop a mound of piping, household appliances and even a neon crucifix. Industry, consumerism and religion are the pillars which support the state. When Sam finally seems to have defeated the samurai, it is revealed to possess his own face under the mask. He realises that he too is complicit in the horror, just another part of the system like everyone else. Gilliam suggests in the director’s commentary that the samurai was used by screenwriter Tom Stoppard as it sounds like “Sam-you-are-I”.
In the final dream sequence, Tuttle and the resistance fighters abseil into the giant torture chamber to save Sam, like angels sent from heaven. One clue that Sam’s escape may just be in his mind is when Sam and the resistance fighters take the previously malfunctioning lift which now works perfectly. Naturally, in Sam’s imagination, the broken machines that plague his daily life are miraculously fixed. The film drops another hint when the resistance fight their way down the steps of the ministry, echoing the civilian massacre by Tsarist soldiers on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. Sam’s imagination changes the massacre to a dramatic escape, the resistance are this time victorious, but we realise that all must be too good to be true. The brilliantly shocking moment in Eisenstein’s film where a baby in a pram is released by its dying mother and tumbles down the steps, is playfully inverted in Brazil, the pram replaced by an industrial floor cleaner.
With Brazil being as symbolically and visually ambitious as it is, I hope I have given a fairly concise overview of the key symbolism, although there is still so much that has not been mentioned.
Author: Matt Conn
Artwork: Joel McCormack