Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Brazil. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is Brazil about?
Brazil is part of a subgenre of satirical dystopias inspired by George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. So much so that one of the working titles was 1984 ½. Brazil dives into the absurdity, tension, and dehumanization of a society defined by corporate culture and the superficiality of the consumerism it engenders. It serves as a forerunner for films that would go a step further—Fight Club and American Psycho. A key component in all three is the role of imagination as a means of escapism to push back against the machine that would otherwise devour us.
Gilliam once described it as “a post-Orwellian view of a pre-Orwellian world.”
Movie Guide table of contents
- Sam Lowry – Jonathan Pryce
- Mrs. Ida Lowry – Katherine Helmond
- Jill Layton – Kim Greist
- Archibald “Harry” Tuttle – Robert De Niro
- Mr. Kurtzmann – Ian Holm
- Jack Lint – Michael Palin
- Mr. Helpmann – Peter Vaughan
- Spoor – Bob Hoskins
- Mrs. Buttle – Sheila Reid
- Mrs. Terrain – Barbara Hicks
- Shirley Terrain – Kathryn Pogson
- Written by – Terry Gilliam | Charles Alverson | Charles McKeown | Tom Stoppard
- Directed by – Terry Gilliam
The ending of Brazil explained
The end of Brazil begins with Sam in a giant, spherical room where his former friend, Jack Lint, “questions” people believed to have committed serious crimes (whether they have or not). The questioning amounts to torture. We have a whole sequence where Harry Tuttle and many resistance members storm the room, break Sam out, but are picked off until it’s only Sam running for his life. The sequence becomes increasingly fantastic—Tuttle is swept away in a storm of loose paper—then concludes with Sam and Jill having escaped the city to start a new life together. Of course, it was all a dream. Sam is still in the chair, mentally fractured. He hums the song “Aquarela do Brasil”.
Brazil is this big, bizarre movie that can feel like a challenge to comprehend. But the good news is that it’s pretty specific in its commentary. It attacks the dehumanizing nature of corporations, the bureaucratic madness of corporate-style government, and the superficiality of consumerism. All through a lens of satirical absurdism. But it also looks at the impact these things have on people. Characters either reinforce the system or become victims of its horror.
The major thesis made by Brazil is that people turn to escapism when faced with the chaos and insanity of such a system. There’s the scene when Sam’s at work: all the employees diligently labor, until the boss shuts his office door, then they all immediately stop and watch a movie. Boss opens the door, they’re back at work. Boss closes the door, the movie’s on. It’s a simple, silly scene you might overlook but it’s an important moment that clues the viewer into one of the film’s key dynamics.
Sam’s daydreams lead him to join the resistance and break out of the rat race. But Brazil chooses a seemingly cynical conclusion. The dreamer doesn’t win. The system does. However, Sam’s break from reality and descent into fanciful madness is, in some ways, a victory. If all he knows is the daydream, won’t he be happy?
But that’s why the movie ends how it does. It brings the main character to a point where the only escape from the reality of the system is his imagination.
Obviously, the film is hyperbolic and over the top. Yet the ending resonates because it touches on something many of us encounter in our own lives. We aren’t strapped into a chair and tortured until we break. We do, however, relax into our status quo. We transform from wanna-be rockstars and gamechangers to accountants and account managers. We dream of traveling but settle in one location and maybe, every few years, go to a beach that’s within a reasonable driving distance. So if you want a more practical application of Brazil’s ending, it’s that. Reaching the point in life where you finally sit in the chair and you’re left with your imagination of what could have been. It’s not that you weren’t capable. It’s not that you couldn’t have made it happen. It’s that the system is designed to break you.
With that in mind, read the lyrics to “Brazil” (the updated English lyrics by Bob Russell)
The Brazil that I knew
Where I wandered with you
Lives in my imagination
Where the songs are passionate
And a smile has flash in it
And a kiss has art in it
For you put your heart in it
And so I dream of old/Brazil
Where hearts were entertaining June
We stood beneath an amber moon
And softly mumer’d “some day soon”
We kissed and clung together
Tomorrow was another day
The morning found me miles away
With still a million things to say
When twilight dims the sky above
Recalling thrills of our love
There’s one thing I’m certain of
Return I will
To old Brazil
The song’s creator, Ary Barroso, once said the point was to “free the samba away from the tragedies of life.” Which is exactly what happens with Sam. “Brazil” frees him from his ruin.
Ultimately, Brazil isn’t necessarily a tragedy, despite Sam’s situation. Gilliam said in an interview with the New York Times,
He escapes into madness, which I’ve always considered a reasonable approach to life in certain situations. To me, that’s an optimistic ending. Lowry’s imagination is still free and alive; they haven’t got that. They may have his body, but they don’t have his mind. The girl rescues him and takes him away and they live happily forever; it’s only in his mind, but that’s sufficient, I think. It’s better than nothing, folks!
The themes and meaning of Brazil
The world of Brazil is awful. But people find ways of distracting themselves. For example, what do we see during the dinner at the fancy restaurant? The food is flavored gruel. But you’re given a wonderful picture of what the gruel is based on. Steak. Pasta. Fish. The actual food is no more. But if you close your eyes and imagine it while you chew, can you tell the difference? Yes. But you can lie to yourself enough for the escapism to work.
We see the same thing at Sam’s first job. If the boss is around, Sam and his coworkers go go go. But the moment the boss isn’t looking? They put on a movie and don’t do anything but watch the movie. The movies help them escape the crush of the bureaucratic nonsense they do.
This extends to Sam’s mom and her friend, Alma Terrain. Neither woman is comfortable with how she’s aging. So they literally try to escape from old age through plastic surgery.
The shackles of doing things by the book
In Brazil’s dystopian world, government regulation is dialed up to 11. And the fidelity to such bureaucracy causes problem after problem. The film’s inciting action is about an error in the system. A little bug that causes a warrant for Archibald Tuttle to go out for Archibald Buttle. The whole machine moves forward without taking a moment to assess or reflect or course correct. And the result is the death of an innocent man and the slow descent of his wife and children into chaos. Even when Jill tries to rectify the error, the amount of red tape crushes her inquiries.
Another example is what happens with the air conditioner in Sam’s apartment. It goes on the fritz. He calls Central Services. No one will help him, despite him saying it’s an emergency. But that’s when the vigilante handyman Harry Tuttle appears. Harry bypasses all the red tape and fixes the air conditioning in only a few minutes. What happens when the “by the book” guys from Central Services show up? They completely wreck Sam’s apartment, to the point of it being unlivable.
Sure, the Central Services guys did not like Sam. So you could argue they were capable but did a bad job specifically to screw Sam over. But it still shows the contrast between someone who loves what they do versus the effort from people who are so deep in the system that they hate the work and take it out on others.
Nothing is as good as it seems
Pretty much everything that’s promised by someone in Brazil turns out bad. The fine dining at the restaurant. The plastic surgery that Sam’s mom and Alma get. The stupid executive gift that people keep giving throughout the film. Sam’s promotion. Even, in some ways, Jill. The woman Sam sees in his dream loves him and has long flowing hair. He himself is this winged figure out of mythology. In reality, he’s a pretty generic guy. And Jill has the haircut and attitude of a soldier in the middle of a war. Most of the time she and Sam spend together is tense and at odds. Not flying through the clouds, happy as can be.
Even when Sam and Jill do hook up and reality is everything Sam hoped for—it’s short-lived. Soldiers kill Jill and take Sam in for “questioning”.
Why is the movie called Brazil?
Terry Gilliam once explained the origin of the film.
We were in this steel town on the coast, Port Talbot, a really awful place. The beach was completely covered with iron ore, black and awful, and I was there at sunset, seeing these strange industrial shapes all over the place. [A vision came to him]. All I could see was this guy at sunset, sitting on the beach, fiddling with his radio. He’s tuning in the radio and getting this wonderful Latin escapist romantic music that has nothing to do with the world he’s in. As it turned out, that’s not in the film, but it’s still what the film is about.”
The New York Times notes: “Mr. Gilliam claims that he named the movie Brazil because ‘I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” although he did toy with 1984 ½ as a possibility.
He did another interview with The Guardian and gave a slightly different answer.
I had this vision of a radio playing exotic music on a beach covered in coal dust, inspired by a visit to the steel town of Port Talbot. Originally, the song I had in mind was Ry Cooder’s “Maria Elena”, but later I changed it to “Aquarela do Brasil” by Ary Barroso.
The lyrics to “Maria Elena” have a similar romantic quality to “Brazil” but without the reminiscing.
Maria Elena you’re the answer to a prayer
Maria Elena can’t you see how much I care
To me your voice is like the echo of a sigh
And when you’re near my heart
Can’t speak above a sigh
Maria Elena say that we will never part
Maria Elena take me to your heart
A love like mine is great enough for two
To share this love is really all I ask of you
You can imagine Gilliam researching popular Latin American songs and coming across “Brazil” which was very famous, reading the lyrics, seeing that line, “The Brazil that I knew, where I wandered with you, lives in my imagination,” then having a eureka moment.
The movie even adapts the lines “We kissed and clung together/Then/Tomorrow was another day/The morning found me miles away.” It’s exactly what happens between Sam and Jill. They spend a night together. The next morning, still in bed, clinging to one another, the Ministry rips Sam away.
In the song, Brazil represents nostalgia and yearning. The lyrics contain the joy of the past, the bleakness of the present, and a hope for the future. Brazil comes to represent something better than whatever situation the speaker is in. It holds all the promise of love and happiness. There’s a hopeful-yet-tragic quality to the song that embodies everything Gilliam does with his film, narratively and thematically. The escapism at the core of both is what unites them.
Important motifs in Brazil
The flaws and failures of systems and the lack of accountability
One of the most important aspects of Brazil is the many examples of flawed and failing systems. And the human cost of such errors. This is most obvious with the Buttle family. The Ministry arrests the dad because of a clerical error. The arrest is SWAT-style and destroys the apartment the family lives in. The government is supposed to fix the damage done, especially once they realize Buttle was innocent, but they don’t. Why? Because no one wants to take responsibility for the mistake. So the Buttle family is left in utter devastation. The apartment is ruined. The wife is broken. The children rove as a pack and fend for themselves. It’s awful.
We see a repetition of this with Mrs. Terrain and the plastic surgery she has. The doctor botches the surgery. Instead of fixing it, he lies to Mrs. Terrain. Over the course of the film, we witness her complete deterioration. Even though her death is part of Sam’s dream sequence, it’s still a resolution for her character arc. It’s unlikely, given how she last looked, that she recovered. So even though the funeral isn’t literally what happened, for all intents and purposes —it is. Will the surgeon face any consequences? Probably not.
No one in power ever faces consequences in Brazil. The consequences always fall on the individual further down the food chain.
Sam’s daydreams of being an angelic warrior
Sam’s daydreams contrast his reality. His real world is a claustrophobic city that’s spiritually stifling. The color palette is gray. Buildings are everywhere. He’s surrounded by advertising and capitalism. But in his fantasy, he soars through a beautiful sky full of heavenly clouds. It’s just him and a beautiful woman and the connection they share.
Then the daydream turns. Sam leaves the sky and is stuck in the city. He must fight his way through a strange army to free the woman. There’s even a boss battle with a giant samurai. It’s tough, but in his fantasy he’s capable and strong and succeeds. He and the woman return to the sky.
The fight with the samurai becomes symbolic of his fight against the Ministry and his attempt to escape with Jill. He isn’t an actual warrior but does his best to defeat his enemy. And seemingly does when he realizes he can mark Jill as deceased. He knows all too well that the system is too broken to ever correct the record. But he didn’t account for the system coming after him. Maybe if he had also marked himself as deceased his plan would have worked. But he didn’t. So they come for him.
The daydream serves, at first, as a means of escapism from the boring nature of Sam’s day to day life. But then it becomes a source of inspiration and motivation. He begins to believe in that version of him. Ultimately, though, the system crushes such dreams.
The film opens with the commercial about ducts. A man compares old, boring ducts to new, modern personalized ducts. There’s an irony there. The previous version of the ducts is cookie-cutter. All have the same bland look. But then the new ducts are customized. Individual. Except in this world, the individual is constantly minimized. We see how the system, the Ministry, views individuals as expendable cogs. As the commercial plays, the camera zooms out to reveal TVs in a shop window. What happens at the end of the commercial? A bomb goes off.
There’s a lot going on there. The bomb is one of many planted by an unknown resistance. We find out later that Harry Tuttle is part of this. Tuttle’s a vigilante handyman. And contrasts specifically with the governmental handymen from Central Services. So you have this tension between the government and the individual. Which is exactly what the duct commercial was getting at. The old government ducts versus the new customized ducts. Except the customized ducts are still a governmental offering. They’re part of the consumerism the Ministry uses to control people. So the individual expression through customized ducts is nothing more than the illusion of control. An illusion the resistance blows up.
Which kind of embodies Sam’s story. He goes from being part of the system to trying to exert his individuality over the system.
But what about the ducts we see through the rest of the film? Generally speaking, dystopian societies like the one in Brazil are invasive. They control everything. Monitor everything. That’s what makes them so formidable and terrifying. So you can read the ducts as extensions of the Ministry itself. The way in which they’re present everywhere, even when they aren’t, and that sense of invasion that comes with it.
They’re also incredibly ugly. Which is part of the humor of the commercial. You have these giant tubes sticking out of the walls and floor and ceiling. The idea that you can dress them up and make them look cool is outrageous. But it’s just the kind of twisted thing you’d expect in a dystopian society. So they become not only a physical symbol for the government but also represent the ugliness of a government that’s so involved in the lives of its citizens. Which ties back to the beauty that’s part of Sam’s vision as the winged warrior. It becomes a matter of aesthetics and how that translates to art and inspiration and individual expression. And how Sam’s world lacks those things.
Paperwork is similar to ducts. It’s another physical representation of the absurdity of the Ministry but also of the stress caused by such a government. It’s a paperwork error that changes Tuttle to Buttle. It’s paperwork drama that keeps Jill bouncing between departments. Tuttle quit his job at Central Services to become a vigilante because he just wanted to fix things quickly and efficiently without all the piles of paperwork the Ministry demanded. Paperwork is what piles up at Sam’s new job as his stress reaches its peak. And paperwork devours Tuttle in Sam’s dream. Tuttle’s erasure by paperwork is something many office workers can relate to (though these days it’s emails).
Questions & answers about Brazil
Was Jill a terrorist?
Sam suspects Jill’s a terrorist working with the resistance, especially when she goes to pick up a special package. When an explosion happens in a department store, he’s convinced Jill was responsible. Except the package had the exact executive gift Sam had received earlier. So it’s likely Jill wasn’t part of the terrorist resistance the way that Harry Tuttle was.
The real reason Jill’s listed as a terrorist accomplice is simply because she tried to advocate on behalf of the Buttle family after the Ministry seized Archibald Buttle instead of Archibald Tuttle. Since the official records showed Buttle as a terrorist (which he wasn’t), and Jill showed some kind of connection to him, the government decides she must be a terrorist too.
Is the Ministry of Information connected to the novel 1984?
The popularity of Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four has made the book synonymous with government offices that start with “Ministry of”. The book had four departments: Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Peace, Ministry of Love, and Ministry of Plenty. The Ministry of Truth being the most iconic.
So when you hear “Ministry of Information” the first thought is probably Nineteen Eighty-Four. Gilliam was very inspired by Orwell’s world so the Ministry of Information is definitely a nod. But the United Kingdom really did have a Ministry of Information that ran from 1918-1919 as part of efforts during World War I. It came back in the 1930s with England’s involvement in World War II. The office had two responsibilities: propaganda and censorship. They controlled the information others received about the war. Limited what the press put out. And managed public opinion by taking down art and press as they deemed necessary.
Gilliam was born in 1940. In the United States. So it’s not like the Ministry of Information affected him much. But as part of Monty Python, he spent a good portion of his adult life in England. And Monty Python definitely ran into censorship issues in the UK. Especially Life of Brian. So the governmental rigamarole was something Gilliam knew well.
Calling the department the Ministry of Information does two things. First, it recalls Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it also recalls not just England but wartime England. Which also recalls Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of the plot points is that the world is in a long war, which is one of the reasons why the society functions how it does. Big Brother uses this idea of war as a means of control. It seems implied then that the world in Brazil is using or has used war as a justification to control its citizens.
What’s the best version of Brazil to watch?
There’s a whole backstory on why Brazil has multiple versions. There’s even a documentary about it called The Battle of Brazil.
Brazil first released in Europe and was the 142-minute version that Gilliam put together. But a different distributor, Universal Pictures, had the US rights. They didn’t like Gilliam’s cut and wanted a happier ending because they thought it would sell better. Gilliam refused. So the movie almost didn’t release in America. Until the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave Brazil all these awards, like Best Picture. Suddenly, Universal agreed to only a slightly edited version for a one-week release that qualified the movie for the Oscars. That was 132-minutes.
But then weird political stuff happened that resulted in Gilliam losing final cut of the film to Universal. The head honcho, Sid Sheinberg, recut the movie himself (by that, I mean with a bunch of editors doing the actual work). This version is known as the Love Conquers All and is only 94-minutes and has the happy ending.
Ideally, you should just watch the 142-minute version that Criterion uses. The 132-minute one is fine but obviously not what Gilliam wanted. Then the Love Conquers All version is something you watch as a curiosity. It probably shouldn’t be how anyone watches Brazil for the first time.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Brazil? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!