It is unclear when the term “bureaucracy” first began moving from its definition of a well-organized governance system of competent individuals to take on the negative connotations for which it is mostly used for today, but the clumsiness of the over-reaching ministry depicted in the 1985 film Brazil certainly does not bring the term any redemption. Throughout director Terry Gilliam’s socio-political satire, his authoritarian party mistakenly captures innocent citizens, sloppily covers up any erroneous incident, and constantly sends its employees running around to seek out individuals to sign stacks of paperwork that will inevitably be returned for lack of the proper amount of official stamps.
One such government employee is our own protagonist, Sam Lowry. A wiry, balding, day dreaming type, Sam’s work consists of collecting and organizing the paperwork which his ministry seems hopelessly reliant on. When he falls in love with one of the several citizens his government falsely accuses of being a terrorist, he joins a group of dissenters who are the only sane characters Gilliam presents to us. The crux of the film centers around Sam using what little power he has to protect his lover and advance the fight against the ministry while keeping his rebellious actions hidden from his rulers. As the plot progresses, we see our protagonist develop from a nervous and dissatisfied do-gooder to a spontaneous and motivated activist.
The ruling body remains unnamed throughout the film, but displays power through ambiguous and rather ridiculously named branches, such as the crude but somehow separately distinct ministries of “Information Retrieval” and “Information Distribution.” The party has become adept at pulling a hood over the eyes of its citizens, masking all of its vast inefficiencies by blaming them on missing paperwork or the actions of an undefined sect of extremists curtly dismissed as terrorists. Such elaborate ruses are what prevent society from noticing they seem to be governed by a haphazardly organized group of unelected imbeciles. The design of Gilliam’s governing authority is likely in some level influenced by the Orwellian totalitarian regime. Although there is a conspicuous lack of telescreens or any form of “thought police”, the technologies of Brazil are equally as ambitious yet extremely unreliable. There are paperwork processing machines that commit errors ultimately costing human lives, computer terminals that flicker and malfunction when displaying citizen information, and even breakfast machines that spill coffee over burnt toast. Throughout the film we observe the action amidst muted, grey set designs that are overwhelmingly bleak and instill a feeling of hopelessness and submittal. Gilliam is cleverly ironic when he names the overcrowded, run-down apartment building in which Sam makes his residence the “Shangri-La Towers.”
Another criticism Gilliam sneaks into several scenes throughout his film is that of society’s obsession of image and the way they present themselves. Sam’s own mother and her group of friends are the victims of grossly superfluous plastic surgery. One of these women is forced to wear bandages over most of her face after a botched procedure, and as her state worsens she tells Sam in a pleasant tone that it’s “just a minor complication, the doctor told me I’ll be beautiful soon,” until one of the last scenes of the film is the woman’s funeral. However, Sam’s mother’s surgery is such a success that she refuses to speak to her own son in order to preserve her youthful appearance. Background advertisements are ubiquitous throughout the film, often for ridiculously useless products that fit such an absurd society, such as fashionable air duct vents. A notable scene is when Sam is driving down a highway whose walls are completely made up of various billboards; the camera then zooms out to show that these multi-colored walls hide a barren, smoky wasteland through which the roads intersect.
Slogans hung about ministry buildings declaring “The Truth Shall Set You Free” or “Suspicion Breeds Confidence” offer a perspective into the insecurities that lie behind Gilliam’s paranoid governing powers. The political criticisms of Brazil offer the viewer a satirical look into a lackluster bureaucracy that’s scrambling to maintain their shaky control over a blissfully unaware populace.