Original release: February 20th, 1985
Running time: 143 minutes
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Kim Greist
Have you got an Arrest Receipt? 00:13:37 to 00:14:28
How different would the world be without the machinery of bureaucracy? While there are many advantages to all the red tape and paper trails, the disadvantages tend to outweigh them. At times it seems to be something thought up by the elite just to keep us ordinary folks spinning our wheels.
How often has a stamp been missed on an all-too-important form which results in your application for a much-needed service being void? How many times have you heard the term “clerical error” thrown around or negligence put down to the notorious “computer glitch”?
Bureaucracy, when it works is marvellous, but all too often it’s us, the little folk, who pay the price for it. In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, this becomes startlingly clear when a typo results in the arrest and death of an innocent man.
Set in a dystopian version of 80s England, we meet Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). He’s a low-level employee for the Ministry who’s assigned the task of rectifying the error which lead to Mr. Archibald Buttle’s death instead of the suspected “terrorist”, Archibald Tuttle (Robert De Niro).
Sam is also preoccupied with a recurring dream of a young woman whom he falls in love with. As he gets to work and pays Buttle’s widow a visit, he discovers the young woman – Jill Layton (Kim Greist) – is real and lives in the apartment upstairs from her. Unfortunately for Sam, Jill has had enough bureaucracy she can take and wants nothing to do with him when she learns what he does for a living.
When Jill goes to the Ministry to help Mrs Buttle to rectify the mistake on her own, she’s considered a terrorist too for trying to point out the government’s mishandling of the situation. This leaves her weary of talking to Sam as she fears the government will track her down, but it doesn’t deter him. In fact, it makes him more determined.
Sam enlists the help of his plastic surgery addicted mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond), who has contacts in high places. After securing him a promotion, he’s then able to obtain all the information on Jill to track her down again. After they share a blissful night together, the dream comes crashing down when Sam is held and charged with treason for abusing his newly acquired position.
Finding himself restrained and locked in a cylindrical room, he’s then told why Jill isn’t there with him before resistance forces storm the building to free him. A frantic escape follows which sees him re-united with Jill who’s driving their escape vehicle and leading them toward freedom – a picturesque valley far away from the bureaucracy of city life.
However, all is not what it seems in Brazil as Gilliam takes us deeper and deeper into the mind of his protagonist who’s desperate to escape the awkwardly ordered society through whatever means possible. As the second film in his “Trilogy of Imagination” series, it’s a story that focuses on the escape through the eyes of a man in his thirties whereas Time Bandits (1981) shows us this through the eyes of a child and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1989), through the eyes of an elderly man.
Brazil, as a film which shows us how the little folks tend to end up paying the price for the faults in bureaucracy, especially where governments are concerned, is perfectly in line with Parkinson’s Law, named after historian C. Northcote Parkinson.
First published as an essay in The Economist in 1955, Parkinson’s Law states that work usually creates more work, to the point of filling the time available for its completion¹. Parkinson also estimated that bureaucracies tend to grow up to 6% annually and that managers who wish to appear busy, increase their workload by creating paper and rules, filling out evaluations and forms, and filing. This work isn’t just limited to employees though, it extends to anyone who comes into contact with and wishes to use the services they provide – the actual thing they’re paid for.
We can see this in action in Brazil when Jill tries to report Buttle’s wrongful arrest.
JILL: (exasperated but controlled)
I’ve been to Information Adjustments. They sent me here. They told me you had a form I had to fill in.
Have you got an Arrest Receipt?
Is it stamped?
JILL: (producing the receipt)
PORTER: (examining receipt)
No, there’s no stamp on it. You see! I can’t give you the form until it’s stamped.
Where do I get it stamped?
And just like that, Jill is turned away to spend another few hours trawling back to Information Adjustments, queuing up to get the Arrest Receipt stamped and then to bring it back to the porter to obtain another form she’ll have to fill out, just to report a mistake they’ve made which resulted in the wrongful arrest and death of a man.
There’s also the Peter Principle to consider, named after sociologist Laurence Peter. In his 1969 book, The Peter Principle, he states,
From the way the porter dealt with Jill, it would be safe to presume he’s exactly the type of employee Peter was writing about. Though he may be completely incompetent in his current job, the porter might’ve been perfectly competent elsewhere in the Ministry before he was promoted to his “level of incompetence”.
With Brazil, and particularly this short scene, Gilliam has given us not only a science-fiction film with a dash of black comedy and fantasy, but also a film that tells us a lot about how bureaucracy has a habit of creating more work than it actually gets done. Along with films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Michael Radford’s 1984 (1984), it remains a thoroughly thoughtful piece of cinema that allows us a closer look at many of the things we’ve come to take for granted and accept as part of life.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .