At some point in the development of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), the idea of a Christmas release was mooted, and so Gilliam and his script collaborators Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeowen worked the season into the storyline, weaving in numerous yuletide references that rebounded pleasingly with the darkness of the movie’s tone. In the event, the film opened mid-year, turning the festive ambience into yet another surreal joke.
Gilliam had tackled the holiday season before, with one of his earliest cartoons, Storytime (1968), featuring a cut-up collage of animated Christmas cards, surreally juxtaposing images to create a demented narrative in which a robin, shot from its perch by wintry hunters, lands in the desert and is carted off as a feast by a caravan of wise men – the differing scales of the various cards mean that the bird appears Godzilla-sized beside the camel-rides, who raise it on their backs like army ants.
Returning to the festive season in Brazil, Gilliam blows up Christmas right from the start, opening on a shop display of TV screens, pulling out from an inane TV spot for Central Services’ camouflaged ducts (obtrusive plumbing is the film’s key design motif) to reveal a wall of identical ads, which detonate apocalyptically just as a warmly-wrapped citizen floats past with a trolley full of Christmas shopping. (A nifty jump-cut removes the extra from harm’s way just before the eruption.) The film’s conjunction of plumbing and political activism is made right from the start, for it is Gilliam’s conceit that in this “futuristic” world, set “Somewhere in the 20th Century”, accidental explosions caused by Central Services’ faulty heating appliances are being mistaken for a campaign of terrorism, and used as an excuse for state tyranny.
The Christmas theme runs through the movie, with an action-movie chase disrupting the last-minute shoppers in a mall, and characters constantly exchanging fatuous executive toys as gifts. Gilliam shows nuns window-shopping for automatic weaponry, and neon crucifixes with the sign “Consumers for Christ”, to not-so-subtly lampoon the conflation of religion and commerce.
From the flaming wreckage of the shop, one lone TV still broadcasts an interview with minister Eugene Helpmann (the reliable Peter Vaughan as a bluff, cheerful apologist for torture, later seen dressed as Santa), who explains how it’s only right and proper that those tortured by the state should be billed for their interrogation.
We cut in mid speech to a govt. office, where the interview continues from a tiny b&w monitor, as the desk-jockey slays a fly, which falls into his complicated bureaucratic machinery, causing the alteration of the name “Tuttle” to the name “Buttle.”
Cut to chez Buttle, where the TV interview is concluding in the background, ignored by the happy working-class family. (Nobody is paying attention to what the state is up to.) Mrs. Buttle is just finishing a recitation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to her children. It’s a text with interesting parallels here – like Scrooge, our hero is inspired by dreams to change his life, although things will not turn out as rosily for him. Thus, Brazil begins with a happy ending and ends with something far more mordant.
“But Father Christmas can’t come if we haven’t got a chimney,” protests Little Miss Buttle, stating a classic child’s problem. “You’ll see,” smiles Mrs. B, and at that moment a black-clad stormtrooper drops through a hole carved in the ceiling, followed by more heavily armed agents who kick down the door and swing through the window with a crude FX-library “glass shatter” sound.
The forces of oppression are both ruthlessly efficient and hideously incompetent – they have arrested Buttle within seconds of the erroneous warrant being issued in his name, during the space of a single spoken sentence in a TV broadcast.
Mr. Buttle has been mistaken for Mr. Tuttle and that mistake can never be rectified because it can never be admitted by the state. The troopers reverse the usual role of Santa Claus, because instead of leaving presents from a sack, they put Mr. Buttle in a sack and take him away. Western democracies weren’t actually doing this when Gilliam made the film, which is why he’s spoken of suing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for plagiarising his movie. At least Mrs. B. gets a receipt for her husband.
David Cairns Shadowplay film blog