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Studying Impressionism in the Classic Science Fiction Movie Brazil

Sci-fi classic Brazil Captures the gestalt of a bizarre life within totalitarianism.

Brazil is an especially bizarre film from 1985 that demands interpretation from the viewer. Starring Robert De Niro and Johnathan Pryce, Brazil is the only film in which guerilla plumbers are a prominent plot element. Yes, that’s right, guerilla plumbers. With rappelling gear–and guns.

The backdrop of Brazil is a noir totalitarian dystopia–not the country Brazil itself. There are a few items unique to Brazil which really define its totalitarian government. Unlike in 1984 or Brave New World, oppression and enforcement of conformity among the population is not primarily via stick nor carrot, although both methods exist. Instead, the government of Brazil utilizes bureaucracy as its defining way of keeping people in line. This fondness for paperwork and stuffy administrators leads to much of the film’s hilarity, as well as all of its plot development.

The film’s style is impressionistic in that viewers are frequently exposed to brief snippets of detail which are later recalled to form a more complete picture without redundant explanation. From the first scene detailing the bizarre functioning of the government’s paperwork system, each airy brush stroke of plot development builds upon the environment that the viewer is synthesizing within their mind. By the end of the film, we have a very good idea of exactly how the world of Brazil works, despite little explanation and even less dwelling on any particular topic.

Bug in the system

The movie begins with an unceremonious death: a fly circling within a government office is smashed by the downward stroke of a typewriter, thus causing the intended letter to be obscured and then improperly transcribed later on. There are serious consequences to this fly’s death. The document that was being written was an arrest warrant for a particularly meddlesome guerilla plumber named Archibald Tuttle, played by De Niro. Instead of the warrant being executed against Tuttle, it is instead executed against a harmless person named Archibald Buttle, who ultimately dies as a result.

The protagonist Sam Lowry is tasked by the government to apologize to the slain man’s widow, correct the incorrect paperwork, and document that the widow was apologized to and the paperwork was corrected. Simple government job, right? Not quite. Based off of the opening vignette, the viewer already knows that Lowry won’t be able to do his job correctly. We barely even see Lowry’s failure in the scene that details it; we see the direction that things were going to go before it even happened, sparing the director the effort of the scene.

Central Services here

Discouraged, Lowry returns home to find a malfunctioning HVAC system at his apartment. More paperwork must be filled out in order to requisition replacement ductwork. Naturally, when the HVAC workers from “Central Services” arrive, clad in outlandishly long-billed baseball hats and matching jumpsuits, their obtusely unhelpful behavior leads to a misunderstanding involving exactly what Lowry needs fixed. Predictably, Lowry filled out the incorrect repair requisition form, and cannot amend it himself. As such, the workers from Central Services go about ruining Lowry’s apartment, tearing out unrelated ducts and breaking items which were functioning normally–most of this occurs off screen, and the viewer is left to hear their clanging and see Lowry’s exasperation.

Bizarrely, the wanted guerilla plumber makes an appearance in an attempt to help Lowry with his ductwork. Clad in garb that one would expect more from a frogman than a plumber, Tuttle stealthily gets to work repairing the ducts, frequently brandishing his pistol in a jumpy fashion. The viewer is left to fill in the details of the societal conditions that necessitate illegal plumbers.


Ultimately, Lowry is hoisted by Tuttle’s petard. Despite being an innocent government employee, policy dictates that his (at gunpoint) collaboration with Tuttle means that he must be arrested and interrogated. Adding to the surrealism is that Lowry’s torturer/interrogator is his old friend, who clearly struggles with the task due to their mutual goodwill. Of course, the interrogator ultimately claims that there’s nothing that he can do except torture Lowry, as it’s protocol. The dominance of policy and bureaucracy over individual consciences is quite telling: nobody in Brazil has any real ability to orchestrate their own lives, beyond filling out the correct forms and following the proper procedures.

Lowry’s torture culminates in his fantasizing that Tuttle and the other guerilla plumbers will rise up and win a shootout with the government. The viewer is made to believe that this is real, and not an illusion, until the fantasy gives way to the sad reality of Lowry sitting in the torture chair, raving mad. Lowry sings the song “Brazil”, detached from reality permanently. Hey, at least he doesn’t have to fill out any more paperwork.

The only film in which paperwork is artistic

And so Brazil ends, bleakly. We’re left with a comprehensive view of the film’s society. For the most part, the characters of Brazil are doomed to be bogged down by their very civilization, even when they choose to participate in it as potently as possible by being a government agent. The exception, of course, is Archibald Tuttle, who is the real leading character. Via a few brief meetings with his character, it’s easy to understand Tuttle.

The fact that Tuttle is a guerilla plumber instead of a guerilla chef or surgeon isn’t relevant. What is relevant is that Tuttle has committed the ultimate rebellion: eschewing bureaucracy for tasks which are simple and do not require paperwork to execute cleanly. As a result, he is branded as a terrorist of the highest threat level.

Tuttle, we grow to know, threatens the society of Brazil itself. A totalitarian apparatus without its primary instrument of oppression is little more than a banana republic awaiting the proper nudge to be toppled. Brazil makes us think that we are witnessing the nudge–a plumber fed up with paperwork–but tells us the truth at the last moment: individuals who buck the bureaucracy aren’t toppling society at all, they’re just making more paperwork for everyone else.

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