Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English




Notes: Universal. 142 minutes.
Directed: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown
Art Direction: John Beard, Keith Pain
Photography: Roger Pratt
Music: Michael Kamen

Sam Lowry: Jonathan Pryce
Ida Lowry:Katherine Helmond
Mr. Kurtzman: Ian Holm
Jack Lint: Michael Palin
Harry Tuttle: Robert De Niro
Spoor, from Central Services: Bob Hoskins
Mr. Helpman: Peter Vaughan

Pre-Commentary: Gilliam wanted to call this 1984


Summary: “8:49 pm, somewhere in the 20th century,” we see a tv ad for Central Service ducts, followed by news of a terrorist bombing and condescending commentary by the Ministry of Information. Elsewhere, an office worker swats a bug which falls into a typewriter, making Tuttle appear as Buttle on one form.

A Mrs. Buttle is reading to her children from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when security police break violently break in, take away her husband, and give Mrs. Buttle a receipt. Amid billboards with the motto, Information: the key to prosperity,” the Ministry of Information is systematic chaos. Workers watch old films when the boss, Kurtzman, isn’t looking. Lowly bureaucrat Sam Lowry escapes in Icarusian flying-superhero daydreams. Called into the office, he bumps into friend Jack from security level 5 and wishes well for “Alice and the twins.” “Triplets.” “Triplets! How time flies!” Kurtzman relies on Sam: “I don’t know what I’d do if you ever got promoted.” He has been, due to his mother’s ability to pull strings, but Sam doesn’t want it. He visits her while she is undergoing a facelift, then has lunch with her and her friends where ordering by numbers is required and pointless, since the scoops of crap served up all look the same. A firy explosion from the kitchen is ignored as the women discuss the splendor of medical gift tokens for Christmas. Sam wants his mother to stop trying to promote him —— he wants nothing (but we cut to his daydream in which threatening monoliths rise from the earth and block out access to his fantasy girl).

An air conditioning problem in his apartment is handled by renegade duct engineer and repairman Harry Tuttle, whose paperwork avoidance makes him wanted by the government. Central Services shows up too late. Back at the office, the wrongful arrest and subsequent death of Buttle is recognized but the problem is the paperwork. Sam drives to Veronica Buttle’s home to deliver the refund check. She’s hysterical and her son attacks Sam, whereby he catches a glimpse of his dreamgirl, who actually was a witness to the arrest from upstairs. Outside his car is missing but a girl identifies the woman as Jill.

Now to find out more about her he wants the promotion to Information Retrieval. At home Central Services is creating duct chaos and his mother sends a screaming telegram inviting him for dinner, where, after hearing about facelift complications, he accepts the promotion with the paraplegic Mr. Helpman, who was friends with his father “especially after the bombing.”

Sam finds the lack of i.d. check odd but goes to his new office, DZ-015, a closet in which the desk is shared through the wall with the next office over. Eventually getting some information on the woman, he finds that Jack is responsible for the Tuttle/Buttle mess, but he is able to get the file on this witness from his old friend. Bluffing past security guards, he is able to declare himself to her in a truck, but she boots him out. He clings to the truck and tries to get her to escape with him. She says “there isn’t anywhere,” and goes to pick up a suspicious box. Despite a struggle for the box and a downtown explosion, Jill was not carrying a bomb. Blurring fantasy and reality, Sam fights a security guard hassling Jill. A paddywagon brings him back to his office where he is chewed out by his boss. He sabotages his own office and returns home to find Tuttle switching ducts outside, leading to the Central Services enemies’ suits to fill up with sewage and explode.

Jill shows up and they go to his mother’s place. After the passion begins, he excuses himself to “save her” by going to Helpman’s office and deleting her file. When he returns he declares her dead. She asks about his interest in necrophilia. In fantasy ecstasy, a police raid brings him to Jack for torture, notwithstanding their “professional relationship.” He is to confess quickly or jeopardize his credit rating.

Jack is shot through the head and Tuttle and cohorts seem to rescue Sam in a violent shootout with authorities. Downtown, Tuttle disposes of his garments but is covered with the paper flying all over from the explosions at the Ministry. Sam tries to peel these off but Tuttle’s body is gone. Sam flees police by entering a church where his mother’s friend has been facelifted to death and where his mother, looking 25, flirts with various men. Sam spills the gruesome contents of the coffin and runs from nightmarish creatures into what turns out to be a mobile home on the back of the truck Jill drives. They take off for the mountains.

Torturers faces intrude onto the mountain scenery and declare that “he’s gone.” Sam is mad and humming “Brazil” to himself.

Commentary: Despite the frustrating length and the seemingly endless series of what keep promising to be the last scenes, the film impressively shifts the futuristic threat from the more alien and dismissable governmental bureaucracy to the business world. And the horrifying technocracy is a disturbing hybrid of old-fashioned and futuristic contraptions (typewriters with videoscreens and a general 1930s look to the architecture, the clothes, and the machinery).

Also, Jill is right: “there isn’t anywhere” to go.