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It’s something of a cliché to say that Brazil, like its inspiration Nineteen Eighty-Four, has lost none of its power or resonance in the thirty-five years since its release. But watching it now, in the twelve-month bonfire that is 2020, I found myself struck anew by it. But not by Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) strange, doomed fantasies; nor the all-encompassing grey bureaucracy of the film; nor even the gauche consumer culture that permeates the film, with numerous shots of roads lined by enormous advertisements to block out the wasteland beyond. No, what stuck with me most this time is simply the character of Jack Lint (Michael Palin), and how perfectly he encapsulates a kind of ordinary, unreflective evil.
Jack is, like Sam, a career civil servant. He is described as less intelligent and imaginative than Sam, but obedient, and willing to do what is asked of him. When he first appears, he is jovial and friendly, recommending that Sam strive for promotion to join him in the department of Information Retrieval. It is only much later in the film that we discover what Jack’s job entails: he is a torturer, wearing a white coat to avoid staining his fine suit with blood, the testimony he extracts typed up mechanically by a cheery secretary. He does this job, as far as we can tell, efficiently and with every appearance of satisfaction in a job well done, while his toddler plays in his office, which adjoins the torture room.
So far, so banality of evil. But Brazil goes further by giving us an insight into what drives a person like Jack, who will do unspeakable things so calmly and automatically. Midway through the film, at a high-class party, Jack encounters Deputy Minister for Information Eugene Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), his boss. His manner becomes obsequious and, when Helpmann refers to Jack’s wife Alison (Elizabeth Spender) as “Barbara,” Jack too shifts to calling her that. When Sam encounters him later in his office, Jack is still referring to his wife as “Barbara,” defending it as “a nice name” when Sam questions this.
Because reality is, for Jack, what authority tells him it is. His wife’s name changes purely because his boss can’t be bothered to remember what it is. Even this most intimate relationship is subject to reinterpretation if it will help Jack impress his superiors. At the end of the film, when Sam is captured and brought to Jack for interrogation, Jack’s hesitation and apparent lack of resolve prove to be because he fears being tangled up in Sam’s apparent treachery – this moment is part of Sam’s final dream sequence, but there’s certainly nothing to suggest that Jack is overburdened with affection for his friend at this point. He is simply there to do his job.
In part, it’s the ordinariness of Jack that makes him so chilling. His torturer’s attire and instruments, as well as the chair in the torture room, all resemble those of a dentist, a very banal source of fear. After removing his bloodstained coat in his office, he hands Sam a Christmas present from what appears to be a row of identical presents, just to hammer home his lack of imagination. He doesn’t appear to be at all sadistic, just very good at compartmentalising. The Jack we see in the torture room at the end of the film is in every respect the same man who greeted his friend (now torture subject) so cheerily earlier in the film.
All of this is aided, of course, by the casting of Michael Palin, to my mind one of the most inspired instances of casting against type imaginable. Palin, then as now, was generally a genial screen presence, even in the Python films and sketches, where his talent for understatement often came to the fore – think of his befuddled everyman in the arguments sketch, or even his relatively unthreatening Pontius Pilate in Life of Brian. This is even more effective now that Palin has been for decades best known as a travel writer and documentary maker, a soothing presence as well as generally being known as someone who comes across as being very pleasant and easy-going. There’s a part of your brain that just expects Michael Palin to be a nice person – even his diamond thief in A Fish Called Wanda is lovably eccentric. Had Robert de Niro been cast as Jack, as he originally wanted, things would have been very different (when in fact de Niro’s Harry Tuttle is another brilliant piece of casting).
But the really disturbing thing about Jack is the knowledge that there are a lot of Jack Lints in the world in 2020, as there always have been. Some perform hysterectomies on unwilling women. Some help round up groups of people to go into camps. Some oversee crowded detention centres, or tick boxes marked “asylum denied,” or simply look the other way at the request of someone in authority. None of them believe they are doing anything wrong. They are only going along with the system. They are only doing what is best for them and their families. They are only following – well, you see the point.
There is a sort of lethal cocktail of societal convention, the pull of authority and self-interest that makes ordinary people do terrible things. Jack Lint does not outwardly appear to be evil – shallow perhaps, spineless certainly, but not evil. When we think of evil, we think of murderous maniacs, or megalomaniac villains, or outright demons. Jack Lint is not Norman Bates, nor Victor von Doom, nor is he some terrible creature from the depths of Hell. He is a man doing a job. Only his job happens to be evil.
Sometimes I think we don’t like to use that word, “evil,” because of its metaphysical associations, as if it’s suggesting too much on some level. But I don’t think there’s a better word for someone who harms others as a matter of course. There are many such people in our world, and the ones who glory in it – the dictators, the preachers of hate, the predators, the rapacious hoarders of wealth – are the obvious targets. But spare a thought for the people who work for them, who calmly disappear other people, who destroy lives and livelihoods because it’s what they’ve been told to do. Think of Jack Lint, and remember that he ends the film having quite dispassionately reduced Sam to a catatonic state through unseen means, wheeling Helpmann away with no more than a disappointed sigh. Think of it as a cautionary tale. You yourself could be on the receiving end of a Jack. Or you could be one yourself.