Dystopia is the undesired state of society, wherein all of its members live in either perpetual fear and often under the complete control of a faceless collective or government. However, not strictly political, a dystopia can manifest itself by means of nature as in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006) or as a result of an unavoidable catastrophe such as the virus in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995). Predictions of future dystopian societies are the subject of choice for an entire subgenre of writers, filmmakers and other such artists, because they have the ability to succinctly deliver large, universal ideas, whilst simultaneously appealing to our natural, inbuilt, 'what if?' curiosity.

Gilliam's Brazil (1985) is one of the more peculiar examples of a dystopian society, being at once a comedic satire of the obsession with dystopian concepts, and a surprisingly bleak horror film. Where dystopian governments are often fuelled by fear and rule through force and power, the fictional ministry of Brazil is pure bureaucracy from top to bottom, extremely prone to human error and defined by its infinite halls of paperwork and endless sub-departments upon sub-departments.

Where previous instalments of this column have approached their chosen sequences from a strictly visual perspective, this edition will be focused more on the thematic content of the scenes, the ideology behind Gilliam's film, and why the film works so well as a piece of dystopian fiction. The first scene in focus, and one of the films more subtly revealing moments, concerns protagonist Sam Lowry, a ministry worker turned enemy of the state, discussing his broken boiler with a rouge plumber played by Robert de Niro, and being interrupted by official, state sent plumbers.

One of the recurring features in Brazil is the absolute overreaction to the smallest of things. Characters will often react wildly to slight inconveniences or otherwise excusable lapses in judgement, and this becomes a defining feature of the society featured. For instance, when the state plumbers attempt to force their way into Sam Lowry's home, he demands to see their 27b-6 form, something that De Niro's Harry Tuttle has just expressed his utter disdain for. One of the plumbers breaks into a fit, stammering the name of the form and slumping against the wall. His colleague knocks him across the head with a spanner before saying "Now look what you've done" and insisting with a threatening tone "Oh we'll be back".

This hostility stems from both the thought of the infamous piece of paperwork and the reluctance of the plumbers, not towards the idea of work, but at the fact they are not able to do their job properly. Tuttle had previously stated he got into the plumbing game "For the action" but was deterred by the amount of paperwork and the relentless bureaucratisation of every aspect of the career - Elsewhere this would be a passing comment, but when its context is a dystopia that functions on that exact thing, it begins to take on a more insightful nature.

Fig 1: The plumbers react to being asked for their paperwork


As mentioned before, the dystopia has the useful ability of being able to directly address the whole human race and deal in universal themes with greater ease and scope, as what they essentially depict is every member of the human race, on -screen or off, as characters living in an undesired state. What Brazil does that makes it so effective and widely praised, is to not put these characters through unbelievable, almost laughably outlandish scenarios (See Exulibrium - 2002), but to take simple ideas and elements present throughout our current society to an exaggerated conclusion.

For us, it seems to be the little details that frustrate the most, the minute lapses in sanity that come with small inconveniences. Here we are presented a dystopia constructed entirely of these things, where every living moment is a signature on a form or a redirected phone call. Gilliam recognised a terrifyingly effective dystopia would not be one with an all powerful ruler, but instead one that is based in the most intricate workings of the mundane. This is perhaps because he believes that we as humans do not fear power as much as we fear being bored - and in a sense he is right, as we gravitate to power and allow it to lead us, but we will forever be repulsed by the idea of having to endure extended periods of tedium.

In the following scene Lowry meets with his boss to discuss an administrative error - potentially the most boring and painfully dull subject for a conversation between two characters. However, through a combination of the fidgety performances, the taut script and the tense direction, a sense of anxiety and dread is borne from intense boredom, and this boredom becomes the driving force of both the scene and the actions of the characters.

Fig 2. Lowry & Kurtzmann worry over the refund cheque


These two scenes perfectly encapsulate the most undesired state of them all - a life defined by boredom. The characters in Brazil are stuck in a world that runs on forms and signatures, and controlled by a government that instils not a sense of fear but an overpowering feeling of monotony and mind numbing dullness.

Where other dystopian films and books have depicted extreme scenarios with similarly extreme results, Brazil depicts one strangely familiar and not wholly unbelievable. Though the imagery may be surreal and many elements of the plot ludicrous, the idea behind the society in Brazil is one incredibly close to our own, with identifiable frustrations and familiar obstacles that the characters must face. Dystopian art functions to show the audience how they may potentially react to a nightmarish situation as a community, but Gilliam's film holds up a mirror and says we are already in one, and that the seemingly endless pile of paperwork on your desk is the real horror of the human condition.