Brazil (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Terry Gilliam's Brazil is one of those films whose enduring reputation is based at least in part on events surrounding its stormy distribution history. Taken at face value, Brazil is a stinging, Strangelovian satire of the power of the bureaucracy in an Orwellian landscape. The vision is clearly Gilliam's; his penchant for striking visual flourishes and dark comedy have seeped into the fabric of the narrative, but it's not the strongest story he has worked with. Plot-wise, Brazil is rather hum-drum and derivative; its energy and appeal derive not from its thin characters or their actions but from the world they inhabit. Take away the controversy and the very public squabble that surrounded Brazil's U.S. release and it would likely have gone down as a middle-of-the-road title on Gilliam's eclectic filmography.

Brazil was Gilliam's first true post-Python movie. The final movie made by the troupe was The Meaning of Life, which hit screens in 1983. For Gilliam, being released from Monty's coils represented an opportunity to spread his creative wings. Brazil's dark humor owes much to Python but the absence of the Python regulars (except Michael Palin) marks this as something different. The film is at home with the two Gilliam-directed features to bookend it: 1981's Time Bandits and 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. All three movies have similar sensibilities, but Brazil is by far the darkest of them. In fact, until Twelve Monkeys, it was the darkest thing for which Gilliam had been responsible.

The movie focuses on Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a mid-level worker in the massive bureaucratic engine that dominates the film's world. Sam is as meek as they come. He submits to his petty, tyrannical boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) without a struggle. In his dreams, he is a great hero, flying high in the clouds, rescuing a damsel in distress, and battling a giant samurai. But in reality, he's just another cog in a spirit-crushing machine. Sam's life changes when he discovers an error in the records: an Archibald Buttle was taken from his home, tortured, and killed. However, this "Buttle" should have been "Tuttle," a suspected terrorist. When Sam visits Buttle's wife to deliver a refund check, he encounters Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the girl from his dreams. By pursuing Jill, who may be targeted for elimination as part of a scheme to cover-up the Buttle/Tuttle mistake, Sam puts himself at risk. He further endangers his position when he meets the real Tuttle (Robert De Niro) and helps the man avoid detection.

Brazil is full of twisted, odd sequences and tangential subplots. There's Sam's mother (Katherine Helmond), who is obsessed with the illusion of youth that plastic surgery can provide. Sam's friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin), is a loving family man who just happens to make his living by torturing and killing people. And there's the vindictive Spoor (Bob Hoskins), who has been brought in to fix a broken air conditioning unit in Sam's apartment and is determined to make life a living hell for poor Sam. These and other elements of Brazil seemingly unrelated to the primary narrative emphasize the kind of world in which events transpire while at the same time sounding a cautionary note about the direction in which modern society is moving. Ida's vanity points to an obsession with physical perfection at all costs. Jack's smiling ability to ignore the suffering he causes is echoed in the face of every CEO and politician who protects his position without consideration of the consequences to others. Then there's the paperwork, where every act requires a signed form in triplicate with a stamped receipt. That's not science fiction; it's reality.

Brazil transpires in two realms: the light, airy fantasy world of Sam's dreams and the dark, dreary "reality" where he spends his days. Gilliam's penchant for breathtaking visuals is most strongly evident in the dream sequences, which are interspersed throughout the movie. On the other hand, Sam's reality has a '40s noir feel. Some sequences are shot to recall images of Humphrey Bogart on the hunt and one character (Harvey Lime) may be named as an homage to The Third Man's Harry Lime. This is sci-fi noir - a view of what the 1980s might have looked at viewed from the perspective of a 1940s filmmaker. Orwell's influence is not entirely unexpected since Brazil was in pre-production during 1984.

Viewed in its 2:22 entirety, Brazil is a fascinating, visually interesting satire of life in a world where paperwork has gone berserk and Big Brother never stops watching. At its heart, it's not the most original idea, but Gilliam's approach infuses it with freshness. But it's ultimately a downer, and that's where the problems for Brazil began. Universal executives viewed Gilliam's cut and decided it was unsuitable for release. In their opinion, it was an "art house movie" and they wanted something with more public appeal. So they went to work on it, eliding about 45 minutes, substituting alternate takes, adding some deleted material, and re-editing the entire thing into a version that has since been dubbed as the "Love Conquers All" bastardization. Gilliam rejected association with the studio edition, and Universal refused to release Gilliam's sanctioned cut. Stalemate.

The full "Battle over Brazil," as it was dubbed, is more complicated than what can be related here, but it came down to a public war of words between Gilliam and Universal's Sid Sheinberg, with both men preferring escalation to backing down. In the end, Gilliam triumphed by arranging a series of unauthorized screenings for Los Angeles-area film critics. They responded by naming Brazil 1985's Best Picture. Embarrassed that a film he was holding from release should be thus honored, Sheinberg let Gilliam's version of Brazil see the light of day. However, the cut of the film sold into TV syndication was the "Love Conquers All" edit. Both versions are available for home viewing and it is instructive to watch them and see how much a movie can be shaped in the editing room.

In casting Brazil, Gilliam chose primarily low-profile but talented character actors. The part of Sam Lowry had been written with Jonathan Pryce in mind and the thespian responded with a nuanced portrayal of a mousy man who desperately wishes he could be heroic. Sam is by turns pathetic and sympathetic and makes for an intriguing protagonist because his most dramatic moments occur only in his mind. American comedienne Katherine Helmond adds a dash of mad humor to the role of Ida. Michael Palin uses his likeability to emphasize the duality of Jack - loving husband and father in one scene, slick information-gatherer in the next. Ian Holm essays Mr. Kurtzmann as a typical bureaucrat - wielding no real power but acting tyrannical nevertheless. If there's a failure in Gilliam's casting, it's Kim Greist, who doesn't click as Jill. Her performance is uninteresting and she never seems like much of a "dream girl," although maybe that was the point. (Gilliam reportedly had trouble casting the part and, after filming was complete, was dissatisfied with Greist's work, so he pared down her screen time in the finished version. She has more scenes in the "Love Conquers All" cut.)

Then there's Robert De Niro. De Niro provided Brazil's star power, and fought alongside Gilliam for its U.S. release. This was a departure for the actor in two ways. First, it was a rare non-starring appearance. Although De Niro has more screen time than Jim Broadbent and Bob Hoskins (both of whom had small parts), he is by no means the film's star. In addition, there is comedic edge to his character. While De Niro would eventually embrace comedy in the late '90s, this was 14 years before Analyze This. His work on either side of making Brazil: Once Upon a Time in America and The Mission. Nevertheless, despite being cast against type, De Niro has a field day with Harry Tuttle and the gamble works.

Many Gilliam aficionados rank Brazil as the director's second or third best non-Python project (in the mix with Time Bandits and The Fisher King. It represented an important stepping-stone in Gilliam's career and an equally important moment in Hollywood's history: one of the rare times when a director stood up against the system and won a victory. During its initial theatrical release, Brazil was far from successful, grossing only $6.5 million (which barely covered Universal's costs in owning the U.S. rights). Over the years, however, this has become a cult classic, beloved by film buffs not only because of its increasing relevance to the society in which we live but because of the story behind the story. Brazil can be enjoyed without knowledge of the behind-the-scenes circumstances but the rich irony of the parallels between Gilliam and his fictional creation, Sam Lowry, add a layer of appreciation to the project that it otherwise lacks.

Brazil (United Kingdom, 1995)

Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1