Those who recently watched Terry Gilliam's 2013 film, The Zero Theorem, will do well to revisit that director's 1985 masterpiece, Brazil, which happens to screen this week at Central Cinema. Nearly three decades separate the films—three decades that witnessed major economic and social changes. These changes are reflected in the plots, performances, and emotional tones of the films. Brazil is in essence a movie that's awakening from the shocks and turbulence of the '70s into the long night of the Thatcher years, and Zero is one that's deep in the sleep of the era that we are currently in—precarious jobs, ubiquitous marketing, social networks, privatized civil services, e-commerce—which appears to have no end in sight.
But first some background on Brazil and Zero. The films are the first and third part of a trilogy, The Brazilian Trilogy, that has its second part in Gilliam's biggest commercial hit, 12 Monkeys. Though all three films share deep connections, Brazil and Zero are almost the same film retold in very different cultural environments—like the same type of tree that has grown on different planets (one with a sun, the other with two). Brazil (which was made on a Hollywood-size budget) is about a government bureaucrat, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who is out of sync with the core values of his society, which is drab, totalitarian, and industrial. All Sam wants is the peace of his humdrum job, the anonymity of his unfashionable apartment, and the excitement of the dream he has every night—it involves him, a knight in a fantastic world, trying to save a beautiful but unknown woman (Kim Greist) who is trapped in a floating cage. One day he meets this dream woman in the real world, and his life changes forever. Zero is about a computer programmer, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), who also is not in sync with his society, which is post-everything and dominated by software and advertising corporations. Qohen is not happy at his job, lives in an abandoned cathedral, and has encounters in cyberspace with a beautiful woman (Mélanie Thierry). Brazil and Zero have the same ending.
An economist with a little knowledge of history (not many of those in our times) would describe Sam's world as Keynesian and Qohen as a neoliberal. Let me quickly explain these terms. Keynesianism economics came into power after World War II in all advanced capitalist societies. Its priorities are full employment, universal social benefits, and high wages for workers (this is also called Fordism). What Keynesians believe is that if workers have more money, they will buy more of the stuff that capitalists are always so desperate to sell. This system worked spectacularly well from 1947 to 1973. By the time Brazil was made, it was on its deathbed and a new kind macroeconomics assumed power.
Keynesianism was replaced by neoliberalism. The priorities of this kind of economic system are the maintenance of low inflation, little to no social benefits, smaller government, and low taxes for the rich, who are seen as job creators. The thinking is: Give the rich money, and they will invest that money and make everyone happy. Growth under this regime has only been impressive for those who can afford financial assets. Two years before Zero was made, there was a popular movement against this current state of things called Occupy Wall Street. This movement, however, failed, and the feeling and mood of that failure is captured in Zero, which is deeply pessimistic about the future. Qohen just wants to find a way out of neoliberal society, but instead he ends up exactly in the same place as Sam at the end of the Keynesian Brazil. Terry Gilliam's conclusion? Only madness can save humankind.