Psychoanalysis and Trauma in Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a film so completely embedded with intentionally placed symbolism and plot that it is difficult to pinpoint a single theoretical lense in which to tackle the movie with; put simply, there is just too much going on. Aside from the inherently obvious themes (totalitarianism, new historicism, etc.), there remain several others in which provide a unique perspective on the film. One that is particularly appealing is the use of Freud’s psychoanalysis applied to the film’s protagonist, Sam Lowry. In the final and climactic moments of the text, the viewer witnesses the mental processes of psychosis and delusion that Lowry undergoes; this psychosis is a product of a medley of different traumas ranging from early childhood development to the more recent ones of his present situation.

Before delving into the final passage of the film, it is necessary to establish some background information on Sam Lowry. As aforementioned, the film is so riddled with content that it can be difficult to find contextual footing to start. Perhaps then it is appropriate to start with the beginning; not of the film, but rather in regards to Lowry’s early development as a child. Little is revealed about Lowry specifically, however the viewer may pick up on several different scenes that help in shedding light on what his childhood may have looked like. An example of this are the scattered scenes throughout the film in which children of adolescence (around the preteen age) are playing with assault rifles (or at the very least objects that look like assault rifles; whether or not they are actual guns does not take away too much from the principle). One scene in particular comes to mind: there are a group of children, seemingly under the age of ten, who are patting down another child while holding their guns. When Lowry attempts to inquire about something, he is told by one of the children to “piss off”. The reader also may notice that in one of the opening scenes that there is a child playing with a rifle around the Christmas tree. Since there are so many kids seen with these guns combined with a lack of anything abnormal or deviant about their doing so, it may be implied that Lowry had a similar childhood experience. Early introduction to violence, weaponry, etc. has unfathomable impact on a highly impressionable child’s unconscious. By assigning normality to these things, that gives totalitarian influences a helping hand in molding Sam’s mental adjustment, confrontation, and ultimate submission to the type of society the viewer sees in the film.

This society itself also plays an important role in Lowry’s life and development. Though one could write hundreds of pages only on totalitarianism in this movie, this paper attempts to focus on the psychology of Lowry. The bulk of the ideas behind totalitarianism are better left to a paper devoted entirely to just that; however, there are some psychological effects that this type of society will inherently yield, and several of these aspects are impossible to ignore. Hannah Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism that in a totalitarian regime, it forces the public to become a collective conscious by stripping people of individuality. Furthermore, once the conscious becomes collective, Arendt argues that the people of a society become superfluous and that once they reach this point, that is the pivotal moment in which a society can dispose of their citizens (115). We see the execution of citizens in this society constantly throughout the film. The government is an entity that is completely integrated into the lives of its citizens. Examples of this such as the machines throughout government buildings that literally follow people with cameras as well as the ease in which government officials are able to coerce their way into people’s homes (such as in the opening scene when the dozen or so officers all with rifles drill through the ceiling and capture Buttle) make it so government presence is completely embedded in the lives of their citizens.

Crucial to understanding Lowry and the psychoanalyzing of his delusion at the end of the text is that, in this totalitarian regime, Lowry had little to no excitement in his life. Not only that, but he preferred it that way. In fact, one of the defining features about him was his lack of ambition. In the text, Mr. Helpman says that Lowry was the only person to have ever turned down a promotion. Thus it may be inferred that he had a mostly insignificant and uneventful life, and that he even enjoyed it this way. The viewer must keep this in mind when analyzing the scope of traumas and stress that seemed to occur as a domino effect unto Sam. This character, who sought to avoid the excitement of promotion, underwent some of the following traumas and psychological stress (among other things): he had a gun pulled on him several times (once when Tuttle broke into his house, once by security at his own mother’s party, once by nearly a hundred government officers, and several other instances), he had his car sabotaged by children and then destroyed, he had his home ruined with ducts and wires sprawled all throughout the place to the point where he could not sleep without sitting in a chair and waking up entangled, he was forced to hang onto a speeding truck while the driver was attempting to knock him off in which he could have had serious injury or perhaps death, he took place in a chase with the police (a truly daunting event when considering the scope of his government) which resulted in his indirectly setting a man on fire, he was evicted, he heard the woman he loved get shot, etc. These are just some of the larger traumas; there is no shortage of events to inflict psychological stress unto Sam, and in such a short period of time. This summary is not for summarization’s sake, but rather to refresh the reader of the intense traumas that took place. It cannot be truly realized the impact of these traumas until they are compared with his former life, which was one of utter insignificance and invisibility.

To dip further into psycho-analysis, Freud writes that certain traumas are often times too much for our conscious self to bear, and these traumas are sent into the unconscious. Freud says that, despite this, the repressed object will constantly attempt to resurface back into the conscious; he writes, “If a stream flows in two channels, an overflow of one will take place as soon as the current in the other meets with an obstacle.” (5). When repressed objects, such as trauma or psychological stress, become too great and clog the unconscious, there are effects that bleed over into the consciously physical self; these are the symptoms we see in hysterics: things like paralysis, depression, amnesia, etc. Freud recounts an instance in which a patient could not drink water, and continued not to (without knowing why) until a repressed, traumatic memory, which was the stem of the problem, was brought out of the unconscious. Lowry’s symptom was that of delusion and/or hallucination. He faces immense psychological stress and trauma throughout the film, some of which I have already mentioned; it is no wonder his psychotic delusion emerged: the psychological stress was simply too much to bear, especially in the face of torture, and his unconscious began to overflow. Perhaps it is clear now what the familiar symbols represent in his delusion, for, “All the material making up the context of a dream is in some way derived from experience, that is to say, has been reproduced or remembered in the dream…” (Freud 44).

When analyzing the final passage of the text, the viewer must assume that the delusion begins with Jack (his only known friend in the movie who ends up being his torturer) getting shot by Tuttle conveniently before Jack begins to torture him. We can infer that this is the beginning of the delusion, as at the end of the film we see Jack and Mr. Goodman are, in reality, perfectly fine. Tuttle in his delusion seems to be this ultra-resourceful figure who exercises an odd amount of control and evasiveness of the government. For some reason, he is the vigilante who “outsmarts” the regime. His role in Lowry’s delusion likely stems from his helping Sam when his house’s cooling unit breaks. Tuttle is presented as someone who can (on a fairly microscopic scale) successfully rebel against the government. Despite the fact that all Tuttle is doing is presumably fixing people’s houses, Sam sees his actions as transcendent and resembling evasiveness for the government, which is something he has never seen before. Perhaps that is why we see Tuttle as the ringleader in Sam’s rescue: Tuttle is the only hero, or the only figure akin to a hero, that Sam has experienced. Once escaped, Tuttle presents a detonation device which somehow brings the entirety of the Information Retrieval Headquarters to complete destruction. This, of course, is highly unlikely-impossible, really-in such a surveillant and cautious setting; however, the viewer may interpret it psychoanalytically as a mental rebellion against his government and everything that it stands for.

Another symbol of potentially repressed thoughts in his delusion is his encounter with his mother, a superficial and rather cold character. We, as viewers, see his mother constantly trying to intervene in Sam’s life despite his persistent assertions against this intervention. It appears as though Sam’s mother does what she does not out of genuine altruism for her son, but rather for superficial appearances amongst her friends and colleagues. At another point in the film, we see Sam’s mother, deliberately in front of Sam, being flirtatious and promiscuous with three different men. One man, a Luis, is being overtly sexual with her in front of Sam. A second one comes and kisses her on the cheek. A third comes moments later and grabs her from behind before they run off together and play around promiscuously. This helps in explaining her obsession for plastic surgery: she is completely and utterly a cadillac for superficity. In another instance, Sam runs into his mother’s friends who inquire if he is “shopping for a gift for his mother”. He distractedly agrees, oblivious to the fact that he is in a lingerie store. There are few scenes, if any, in which his mother is not linked to some sort of sexual interpretation. This can be hugely conflicting to Sam; to further concrete this confliction, when Sam goes to Mr. Goodman’s personal office, there is a picture of his mother on his desk. There are immense implications (sexual and otherwise) in this. Marrying this with the fact that there is virtually no mention of Sam’s father in the film shows the potential distortion of Sam’s perception of his mother. This is all ignoring the fact that perhaps the sole notable mention of Sam’s father is by means of Mr. Goodman himself. All of these things are crucial for interpreting the way we see Sam’s mother in his delusion: surrounded by men, giving a provocative wink to Sam, and then her utter ignoring of Sam’s pleas for help. It shows the complete neglect that his mother gives to Sam and her prioritizing men and her superficity over her son.

Then there is the perfect ending of his delusion: his escape of the hundreds of guards chasing him to safety outside of the city limits and into that of the paradisiacal natural setting with Jill. The fact that Jill is even there is complete denial (and perhaps the re-repressing) of Jill’s death. Other traumas/stresses leak their way into his delusion, but Jill’s reappearance and seemingly happy ending show that perhaps Jill’s death surpasses all of the other traumas to the point that it is repressed once again, even in his delusion; it is too much to bear. Perhaps then that is why in the final scene, we see the complete mental breakage of Sam. He stares blankly, in complete psychotic delusion, and hums to himself. This is the breaking point for Sam, the complete destruction of his psychological will and sanity. All of his traumas seem to attack him at once, and it results in a complete mental shutdown.

Ultimately, Sam’s delusion confronts several of the major traumas he battles with throughout the film. His conscious is fighting to keep them at bay and send them back into repression, and thus is why we see the nightmare-ish delusion end in some form of impossible contentedness. This is Sam’s conscious’ last effort to preserve his attacked psyche. We get to see into all of his developmental and present traumas by means of his delusion and can thus interpret them psychoanalytically. This paper merely scratched the surface of a psychoanalytic interpretation of the film, let alone all of the other alternate theories in which this film may be viewed. But it provides insight as to how traumas and other psychological stresses contributed to his eventual mental breakdown. Gilliam gives us his view of a dystopian society and the complete mental suffocation it can induce, and he uses Lowry as an example of a potential possibility of what such a society can do to the mind.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The origins of Totalitarianism. N.p.: HardPress, 2016. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1988. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Basic Books, 2010. Print.