Film Advent Calendar: The hilarious dystopian satire of Brazil

  • Parody of 1984 and commentary on modern bureaucracy make Brazil hilarious
  • Classic Terry Gilliam weirdness in every scene
  • December 18th on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

In 1984, George Orwell protrayed a police state that controlled its citizens every move and thought, and imprisoned those it couldn’t.

In Brazil, Terry Gilliam focuses on the more mundane aspects of such a world, a dystopian future where everyone is doomed to work in impractical offices for the rest of their lives.

Movie poster from Brazil
Movie Poster from Brazil. Credit: AMPAS

Brazil is a 1985 surreal satire film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro and Kim Greist.

The film follows Sam Lowry (Pryce), a low level government employee tasked with ammending paperwork following a mistake that led to the arrest and execution of innocent Arthur Buttle instead of vigilante terrorist plumber, Arthur Tuttle (De Niro). While talking to Buttle’s widow, he meets Jill (Greist), a woman who he has dreamed about and she starts to shake his acceptance of the system.

This film is Gilliam’s way of laughing at the idea that we could have a totalitarian government – people are just too stupid for it. In Brazil’s dystopian future, nothing works. All the buildings are filled with silly amounts of pipes that continually break and even the paperwork needs paperwork. Those in charge are more or less clueless and a fly jamming a typewriter causes the wrong man to be arrested and killed.

Brazil is quite prescient too. 33 years on from its release and beauracracy has only got worse. Take universal credit, for example. It’s a change to the benefits system that has not saved anybody any work, but has ended up shifting people from department to department trying to get their welfare payments on time. Gilliam is joking about added meaningless beauracracy in Brazil, but he is warning us too. Pity we didn’t pay attention.

Scene from Brazil
Jonathan Pryce in Brazil. Credit: AMPAS

The film gets its name from the song, Aquarela do Brasil, a famous latin American samba tune, which gives a sense of something exotic, somewhere to escape to. Contrasted with the humdrum of urban England, you can get a sense of people being driven insane quite quickly.

In 1984, Winston Smith is ultimately ineffectual, but his story arc is getting to that point to realise it. In Brazil, Sam is incompetent at most points and terrified of the world around him, while things happen to him. Due to his job putting him on to Tuttle, the latter pays him a visit and fixes his plumbing, only for the official plumbers to make Sam’s life a misery as they go through all the paperwork.

Sam suffers from something a lot of us do. He can see the fundamental problems with the world and yet nobody around him seems to notice or care. In his own head, he dreams of being a hero but that is as much agency as he has.

So, if you want to watch a good satire, but also fancy something truly bizarre, you have very little choice but to make Brazil a film to watch this Christmas.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from Brazil
Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist in Brazil. Credit: AMPAS