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Brazil, written by Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard, directed by Terry Gilliam, 1985, 142 min

Brazil might be the most intense vision of dystopia ever committed to film. As such, it has suffered many criticisms of its lack of commerciality, simultaneously gaining praise from those who applaud its refusal to pull its punches. It's a long movie, over two hours, and it never lets up, pounding the viewer continually with the hideous possibilities in human nature and, more pertinently, the ways in which societies can be organized. As far as I'm concerned, this is one of Gilliam's best films, consistently brilliant, and mordantly funny. Of course, I'm likely a member of this film's ideal audience, and other people might not get as much out of it.

Terry Gilliam underwent a lengthy struggle to get this film released in its proper cut in North America (it had already been released in Europe according to his wishes). You can find the details in the book The Battle Of Brazil, by Jack Mathews. I won't mention much else about the famous story; suffice to say that the irony of the parallel between the story of smothering, anti-creative bureaucracy in the movie and Gilliam's own situation was not lost on Gilliam. Gilliam has talked about his resistance to the notion that all films be reduced down to the same template that is supposed to produce success (from the commentary track on Brazil as well as 12 Monkeys); Brazil is not an action movie, and it's not really a romance, even though the studio in America tried to make it one. Brazil is unique, making fierce demands on the viewer to take the film on its own ground. Few films do this. Even fewer do so as successfully as this one.

Brazil tells the story of Sam Lowry, a lowly cog in an Orwellian society, trying to escape from the drudgery of his existence through extended dreams. Lowry, as played by Jonathan Price, is sometimes a bit shrill, and not terribly complex. But we can't help but identify with his character because of the horrible situations he is thrown into, at least until the story develops and we learn more about him. His society is filled with paranoia, repressive bureaucracy, callous systems, and unacknowledged mistakes; the movie begins with the hunt for a 'criminal' named Harry Tuttle, and due to a typo, Harry Buttle gets forcibly removed from his family at Christmas, charged for the fees of his arrest, and tortured to death. The one witness of this arrest, a woman named Jill Layton, tries to find out what happened. Meanwhile, Lowry works in the ministry that keeps track of this kind of information, and he and his boss are paralyzed by anxiety about a refund cheque; Buttle was overcharged for his fatal torture and now the money needs to go back, but the family has lost almost everything, even their bank account. Lowry goes to see Mrs. Buttle in person with the cheque, and it's here that we first see how utterly out of touch he is. He does not see how the woman's life is completely wrecked by the work of his department. But he does see the upstairs neighbour, Jill, who happens to be the woman who has been in his dreams. After this point, he cares nothing except for finding Jill; he even joins the infamous Ministry of Information in order to be able find her, and secretly exonerate her records. But he has not even earned this promotion, because he is part of a privileged family in the society, and he uses his mother's connections to get the job. For a man so completely oblivious to the consequences of his actions, his end is in one sense quite fitting. In another sense, he is only a product of the system in which he lives, and he is to be pitied. He knows no way out! He sees a path to resistance by way of his lust for his dream girl, not particularly enlightened perhaps, but at least a step in the right direction. To mistake this movie for a romance is remarkably blind; Lowry's internal escape is the only things left to him, of all avenues open to human endeavour.

A surfeit of strong performances make the secondary characters of Brazil stand out. I like Ian Holm's work quite a bit (Alien for one, and his stunning central performance in The Sweet Hereafter), and here he runs away with his role as the bungling boss. Robert de Niro provides a touchstone role in the movie as a renegade plumber; in the world of Brazil, this is an incredibly dangerous occupation. Gilliam's colleague from the days of Monty Python, Michael Palin, does a surprising and convincing turn here, as the family man and torturer Jack Lint, and it's quite well-played. Kim Greist as the 'dream girl', Jill Layton, does what she can with a role that would border on insulting if Layton weren't so dynamic and vital.

All aspects of the movie work together surprisingly well to support its theme. The profusion of detail suffocates us, dislocates us, takes us out our own world and level of comfort by terrifyingly taking us back into it. Excess is the point, the chaos of disintegration, and the fragments humans always try to shore up against inevitable ruin. All elements are immediately recognizable, distinctly twisted, and most of all, consistent, in a way that few movies ever hope to achieve. Consider the dream sequences, Lowry flying free at first, and then fighting for his survival among the grimy monoliths. Filled with beautiful and disturbing imagery equally, the dream sequences add a great deal to the movie, as well as funhouse-mirroring Lowry's mental health. A running subplot about plastic surgery also fits in perfectly; not only does it once again emphasize the oblivious side of Lowry, but we also see the destruction of the body at the whim of socially constructed ideas of beauty. Just consider feminist theories of how body image is imposed on us, and self-esteem dictated, by society, and you'll see why this is such a brilliant subplot. Alternately, look at the posh apartments and restaurants, and how the rich ignore their disgusting ugliness, with exposed ducts and all. How carefully this supposedly ramshackle visual structure works together! Watch for the details--they're what set Gilliam apart. The visuals are astounding, simply astounding. Of course, this is what we expect from Gilliam, as he provided the talented visuals for Monty Python. He has said that he sometimes gets lost in the details, because of his training as an animator, working frame by frame. Criticism of Gilliam's style claims that he doesn't balance visuals with coherent story and character. No one denies that he gives us a feast on the screen, eye candy that also works on the brain.

I won't say anything about the music here--check my review of the soundtrack.

DVD Note: When I originally wrote this review, I was unaware of the fact that I had only ever seen the 133 minute version of Brazil. The DVD release of Brazil from Universal restores the movie to its proper running length of 142 minutes, even though apart from that it is a entirely barebones release. Fans of Brazil will want to pick up the Criterion Collection's somewhat expensive 3 DVD set. The three DVDs in this set are labeled respectively "The Movie", "The Production Notebook", and "Brazil: The 'Love Conquers All' Version". The first DVD has the movie at 142 minutes, along with a satisfying, informative, and lively commentary by Terry Gilliam himself. The second DVD is packed full with extras: an hour long video version of Jack Mathew's Battle of Brazil; a 30 minute making-of documentary shot at the time of filming; interviews with the screenwriters, production designer, costume designer, and composer; tons of Gilliam's storyboards, including storyboards of fantasy sequences that were cut; test footage of special effects; lots of other stills; and even the trailer. The third DVD is the one will strike some people as unnecessary; it contains the 94 minute long version of Brazil that was cut by the studio. This version is known as "Love Conquers All" because it has a happy ending, as Sam and Jill leave the city and live peacefully in the country. To me, watching this version was quite shocking, and it gave me a strong sense of why Gilliam put up such a fuss! Not only does it have a happy ending, the rest of it is thoroughly hacked up, but not even consistently hacked up (for example, since the closing sequence is no longer a dream, it seems odd that the Harry Tuttle being devoured by paperwork was left in). The third DVD has a commentary track by someone named David Morgan, who is good at identifying which shots were changed and how different edits affect the meaning. All in all, the Criterion release makes an impressive package, and a sense of vindication for Gilliam's vision.


First posted: February 13, 1998; Last modified: January 20, 2003

Copyright © 1997 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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