Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/13/05 with Additional Content and a New Conclusion.
The only American in the British comedy troupe Monty Python, Terry Gilliam stood out for his quirky and abstract animation sequences that came between some of the comedy sketches in their Monty Python's Flying Circus shows. Gilliam would often appear in the sketches sometimes as a small part where in the 70s when Monty Python branched out into films, Gilliam would co-direct the films like Monty Python & the Holy Grail and 1983's Monty Python & the Meaning of Life. When Monty Python disbanded shortly after the Meaning of Life, Gilliam went on his own to direct his own films after doing two solo features for 1977's Jabberwocky based on Lewis Carroll's story and Time Bandits in 1981 that included Python-mates Michael Palin and John Cleese (who wrote the film with Gilliam and Python's Eric Idle) along with Sean Connery. With the year 1984 looming and its relevance to the bleak, totalitarian novel of George Orwell, Gilliam decided to make his own version of 1984 with a bit of the over-the-top, surreal style of Federico Fellini that would become his masterpiece, 1985's Brazil.
Set in the 20th Century in a different world, Brazil is a grand, otherworldly film that combined Orwell's bleak, Metropolis-like vision of 1984 with many of Gilliam's Python's hijinks in tow. It's part sci-fi, part-comedy, part-drama, part-fantasy, and part-action all rolled into one. Though the film is called Brazil, it doesn't set itself in the country of Brazil or has anything to do with Brazil except for its song that is played throughout the film. What the film is about is an oppressed, meek man named Sam Lowry who often dreams into another world whenever he's feeling oppressed by his bleak world around him. After a mistake that has an innocent man killed, Lowry investigates to correct an error where he bumps into the girl of his dreams, a terrorist, and all sorts of people including those he works for at the Ministry of Information. Playing Lowry is Jonathan Pryce who makes a cowardly, meek man into an unlikely hero. With a cast that includes Gilliam's Python-mate Michael Palin along with Jim Broadbent, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Kim Griest, Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughn, Charles McKeown, and Robert de Niro. Brazil is a flat-out masterpiece that proves that there's no escape to imagination.
It's a typical day in the Ministry of Information when a technician (Ray Cooper) kills a fly in the ceiling, only to have that dead fly drop into a mechanized typewriter where an error occurs. The error forces a group of police-like guards to take a man named Mr. Buttle (Brian Miller) to have him be executed by the Information Retrieval group. Witnessing the capture is a woman named Jill Layton (Kim Griest) who notices that it's an error. The next day, a nervous office manager named Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) keeps peeping through his employees as he notices glitches in his computers where workers would watch movies. He calls for one of his loyal employees in Sam Lowry, only that he has overslept in his dream where he's a superhero, flying to find his dream girl. He wakes up to learn that he's overslept and the electricity in his apartment isn't working. He arrives where he bumps into his friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin) who works at the Information Retrieval office.
Lowry fixes Kurtzmann's computer problems as he heard that Lowry is up for a promotion at the Retrieval group but Lowry has turned it down because he enjoys his anonymity. He learns that his promotion has been pressured by his own mother Ida (Katherine Helmond), who knows the boss Eugene Helpmann (Peter Vaughn). Ida, who is currently getting a plastic surgery procedure to look young by Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent) takes Sam to have dinner with friend Mrs. Terrain (Barbara Hicks) and her braces-wearing daughter Shirley (Kathryn Pogson). Ida and Mrs. Terrain hopes to have the two to get together but neither have any interest in another where Sam often feels pressured by his mother to not work for Information Retrieval. The problems with his mother, only makes Sam escape into his own dream world where he suddenly wakes up to learn that his air conditioning has broken down.
He calls Central Services to have his air conditioning fixed, only to learn that it will take them days to arrive. Then, a few minutes later, a man named Harry Tuttle (Robert de Niro) has arrived to fix the air conditioning since he intercepted Sam's call. Tuttle, who used to work for Central Services, fixes Sam's air conditioner without dealing with papers and claims, it's all for the work and to help someone. During the fixing, Central Services suddenly arrives with its fix-it guys Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and Dowser (Derrick O'Connor) to check up but because they didn’t have the forms to fix things, they’re forced to come back. Tuttle thanks Sam as he escapes through gliding down a wire as Sam learns he’s a terrorist because he fixes things without papers or money.
When Sam goes to work with Kurtzmann, Kurtzmann learns that an error did occur with Buttle when really, it was supposed to be Tuttle that should've been executed. Kurtzmann wants to deliver a check to Mrs. Buttle (Sheila Reid) but nerves have driven Kurtzmann to the edge. Sam will deliver the check personally as his fellow workers are secretly watching Casablanca. When Sam goes to deliver the check, Mrs. Buttle wants to know what has happened to her husband as he is attacked by her children as he witnesses Jill, wondering who she is since she resembles the girl in his dreams. He saw her earlier as she is now being suspected for being in cahoots with the terrorist group. Sam wants to know who she is but because he can't get information from his office, he has a reason now to take the promotion at Information Retrieval.
Upon returning home to his apartment, he learns that Spoor and Dowser has made things worse, especially when they learned that Tuttle was here. They have the paperwork where everything is screwed up. Sam goes to sleep to dream more where he battles a samurai warrior (Winston Dennis) to save his dream girl. Sam is waken up when a singing telegram girl (Diana Martin) arrives to tell him that his mother has invited him to a party. Sam doesn't want to go at first until he learns that Helpmann will be there. Sam arrives where he sees his mother, looking younger than ever while Mrs. Terrain looks worse thanks to an acid-like experimental procedure made by Dr. Chapman (Jack Purvis). Sam finally sees the wheelchair-bound Helpmann as he helps go into the bathroom and Helpmann decides to return a favor for Sam’s father by giving Sam the job which Sam accepts.
Sam takes his first day at Information Retrieval where he works with a talkative boss named Warrenn (Ian Richardson) and borrowing the computer of his neighbor Lime (Charles McKeown) where he finds more information on Jill, who is suspected for all sorts of crime and is a fugitive. He goes to Jack for guidance as he learns that Jack's job is to torture people as Jack suggest to change into a better suit with his daughter Holly (Holly Gilliam) watching. Sam, in a new suit, goes to find Jill where he sees her at the reception board where he goes after her and tries to tell her about Mr. Buttle. Jill doesn't trust Sam at first, only to give in when he doesn't give up, especially since he loves her. She takes him to a plant where she’s carrying a delivery but after an explosion, she is suspected for the bombing as she and Sam are captured. Sam, is returned to his office where Warrenn forces him to work overtime.
Sam comes home to find his apartment a complete mess that he cannot control as Spoor leaves him out. Then, Tuttle arrives to help Sam where after Tuttle's escape, Jill arrives as Sam decides to sneak into Helpmann’s secret elevator to delete Jill's files as the two fall in love, only to be captured by the Ministry. There, Sam wonders what is going on, where is Jill, and what is going to happen to him.
With an original screenplay written by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard, Brazil has many elements that aren't just cerebral but also filled with satirical humor. The credit really goes to Gilliam for his extraordinary vision by bringing Orwell's bleak, totalitarian vision of bureaucracy that is almost inescapable and find humor in it. Imagine living in a world where like in Brazil where you're living in poverty, all the machines don’t work well, and forced to live in this state. It's a bleak film but one that has humor and spectacular visions. Gilliam and his fellow writers really create a fantastic story in which, our protagonist is someone an audience can connect with. Lowry is a dreamer, who doesn't want to be noticed and wants to live in his dream without facing any kind of realities or responsibility. It's a fantastic screenplay that deserved its recognition by the Oscars even though they were just nominated.
If the script of Brazil is intelligently witty, Gilliam as a director pulls all the stops into his vision. Here, he perfectly captures a totalitarian bleakness that is very otherworldly and now, it makes sense with our own American idealism where the American dream is over and we're forced to live in a country run by idiots. Gilliam is really a storyteller like Fellini that uses extravagance to advance a story that blurs the line of reality and fantasy. It's top-notch directing at its best and as for the film's ending. I won't reveal it but it is a happy ending when you think about but it makes you really think and it's one that Gilliam fought over for when he made Brazil and it’s true to his vision.
If Gilliam's directing is in its imaginative form, complementing that vision is cinematographer Roger Pratt who brings in a diverse approach to the film's vision, with little color in many of the film's bleakest scenes and productions while bringing a lot of colorful lighting in Lowry’s dream sequences, including the samurai battle scene with its mix of gray and color. Helping out in the visual department is production designer Norman Garwood along with art directors Keith Pain and John Beard for capturing the bleak, utopian nightmare of the Metropolis-like city with its poverty-stricken city and its upper class styles that really shows the contrast of the rich and poor, even in the building where Sam and Jack Lint works at.
For the film's retro-30s look, costume designer James Acheson brings in a costume style of 1930s-like suits for the males except for Robert de Niro's Tuttle character while most of the women wear these wonderful clothing with boot-like hats along with Gilliam's wife Maggie Weston for creating strange makeup and hair for Katherine Helmond's character. With a wonderfully diverse score from the late Michael Kamen, the orchestral arrangements that are filled with rich strings play up to the film's suspense and dreamy tone along with dreamy layers for the song of "Brazil".
Credit for capturing the behavior of the bureaucracy of Brazil is its cast that includes several fine small performances from Brian Miller, Ray Cooper, Barbara Hicks, Shirley Pogson, Jack Purvis, Diana Martin, Derrick O’Connor, Holly Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Sheila Reid. While Bob Hoskins and future-Oscar winner Jim Broadbent had small roles, both actors delivers some hilarious standout moments in their respective roles as repairman and surgeon in their own unique way. Playing against type in a role that now stands as ironic is Robert de Niro as Harry Tuttle, who only appears in a few scenes but he is extremely funny whenever he's on board.
Ian Richardson and Peter Vaughn are great in their roles as the superiors of the building that Sam Lowry works for while Ian Holm really stands out with his neurotic performance as Kurtzmann. Katherine Helmond gives a funny, aloof performance as Sam Lowry's mother while Kim Griest is excellent in her role as Jill Layton with her tough-as-nails attitude and beauty. Of the supporting cast, the real standout is Michael Palin for his eccentric, strange performance as Jack Lint, with his nice guy, ignorant role as a man who doesn’t think torture is a bad thing.
In terms of performance from the whole cast, no one stands out better as Jonathan Pryce as the protagonist Sam Lowry. Pryce brings a complex and human performance as a man that couldn't stand the oppression he's living in and all the gadgets he has to be surrounded with. Pryce brings sympathy to Lowry in scenes involving his mother and her friends. Lowry is the guy we know and when he's in the dream sequence, Pryce is larger than life. He brings both comedy and drama into a great performance as this will be the role he will be remembered for as he continues to do great films like most recently, Pirates of the Caribbean.
***The Following Content is Additional Material Relating to the Criterion DVD Box Set Written on 9/9/10***
The 1999 3-disc Criterion DVD set is one of greatest releases from the Criterion Collection. The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio for widescreen while the film is assembled from both the American and European theatrical releases for the ultimate cut of the film at 142-minutes. Featuring a new remastered Dolby stereo surround soundtrack, the remastered film (which was remastered again in 2006 for a single-disc release) is all supervised by Terry Gilliam.
The only special feature in the first disc of the DVD aside from English subtitles for the hearing impaired is a full-length audio commentary track by Terry Gilliam. Gilliam talks about the making of film while reflecting on everything that is happening as he’s watching what he says is the fifth and final cut of the film. The only scenes that don’t appear in the final version that was assembled from the American and European theatrical releases are the clouds at closing credits and an extended scene at the end that appears in the shortened, studio-cut version of the film.
Gilliam praises the work of Jonathan Pryce and co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard throughout. Pryce for his physical comedy and expressions during scenes while Gilliam praises Stoppard for some of the dialogue and ideas he had. The name “Brazil” came from the idea of shooting the opening sequence in Brazil at the rain forest where it was later revised for the scene where a man kills a fly and the mess up of Tuttle/Buttle occurs. Gilliam also talks about Robert de Niro who was very nervous about doing the film though it was a small role. Yet, de Niro was very relaxed during the making of the film as Gilliam has fond memories.
Terry also talked about the casting of Jill where he wanted an unknown. While it’s been known that Gilliam had issues with Kim Griest, Gilliam underplays those issues as he liked her performance and felt she was right along despite the people who auditioned for the film. Among them were Ellen Barkin, Rosanna Arquette, Kathleen Turner, Jamie Lee Curtis, Rebecca de Mornay, and Madonna. Gilliam also talked about the scene with his daughter Holly and Michael Palin which she hated to do. She only had two days of work and in the second day, she didn’t want to say her lines. So in order to film her, Terry recalled having to operate the camera while his wife Maggie held the boom mic so she can do her famous line to Jonathan Pryce.
Gilliam also talks about his struggle with the studios as he reveals his hatred for Hollywood and the studio system. Even as he feels that filmmaking is a collaborative effort where it’s not just the director but the actors and crew members that are all trying to tell a story. The commentary also includes some technical details and other things Gilliam tries to recall as it’s definitely one of the most enjoyable commentaries for a film.
The second disc is a production notebook of everything that went on with the making of the film as well as the battle to release it. Featuring numerous special features, the second disc includes rare documentaries and interviews with those involved in the film. The first is a 56-minute documentary called The Battle of Brazil: A Video History by journalist Jack Mathews. The documentary chronicles the funding for the film and the battle to release it. Featuring interviews with Terry Gilliam, producer Arnon Milchan, studio executives Frank Price, Bob Rehme, and Marvin Antonowsky, L.A. film critic Kenneth Turan, and a 1985 audio interview with former Universal studios chief Sidney Sheinberg. The film goes into detail over the battle of the film.
It begins in the early 80s where Terry Gilliam met Arnon Milchan about a project he wanted to do called this project called Brazil. Milchan liked the idea but had a hard time selling studios about the project. At the 1983 Cannes Film Festival where Gilliam was promoting Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Milchan working to get buyers for Once Upon a Time in America. The two met Bob Rehme of Universal where he said yes to the project though Gilliam got an earlier offer from 20th Century Fox to do Brazil if he would direct the film Enemy Mines.
Things were going great until Rehme was out of the job as other people from Universal became concerned. When Gilliam submitted his first cut of 142-minutes, executives got worried and wanted him to cut the film. Though that cut was released in Europe by 20th Century Fox to critical acclaim, the executives at Universal were still unsure following a poor test screening in the U.S. Universal head Sidney Sheinberg decided to get involved and cut the film into 94-minutes taking out a lot of the fantasy sequences and focused on the love story. Gilliam got upset while he was still trying to cut a shorter version of 130-minutes for U.S. audiences as a battle ensued.
Gilliam made the battle public as he even got Robert de Niro to do a rare interview on national TV with Gilliam to support the film. Gilliam’s guerilla tactics worked as Jack Mathews was reporting all that was happening capturing both sides. Gilliam held secret screenings and then one for the L.A. Film Critics Association where the film won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. While Gilliam won the battle to release Brazil in the U.S. in New York City and Los Angeles in December of 1985. The film wasn’t a major commercial success though its reputation has grown since. Gilliam was happy that he at least, allowed directors to fight for their vision more.
The second documentary is a 30-minute documentary called What is Brazil? by Rob Hedden. A behind-the-scenes documentary with cast and crew interviews during the production as they ask what is Brazil? Gilliam talks about his collaboration with Tom Stoppard, who admittedly reveals not liking collaborations very much while is unsure what script Gilliam is shooting. The doc also has Michael Palin talking on the phone during the interview while pretending to be other characters. One of the highlights of the documentary is the lost eyeball sequence that was supposed to be part of the dream sequence but got cut out due to length.
The next series of special features is the Production Notebook that reveals everything about the film and its look. Among them is numerous texts and notes relating to the many drafts of the screenplay for Brazil. Featuring pictures and draft notes from Charles Alverson, who helped write in the numerous drafts of the script. The numerous texts and development for Brazil in script is truly mesmerizing with characters such as “the Oppressor” who was eventually cut out since there was no room for a true, main antagonist due to the involvement of Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard in numerous drafts.
Also included in the script development section is a nine-minute video featuring Gilliam, McKeown, and Stoppard talking about the writing process. Whereas Stoppard was brought in for three drafts as he brought ideas that changed things. Gilliam brought McKeown to put some ideas back from previous drafts and keep the stuff that Stoppard wrote that Gilliam felt worked. The three men reveal how difficult it was to find a balance for the script where all three would be satisfied for what would be shot.
The storyboard material presented in the DVD reveal lots of text about the detail of what Gilliam wanted along with drawings that he made for the fantasy sequences in all nine of the dreams presented and where they were originally supposed to be in the film in its various drafts. The second dream sequence included the cut eyeball scene where Sam in his dream tries to save Jill. Others are variations while the final involved Helpmann as Father Christmas.
The production design section reveals in-depth detail in the work Gilliam and production designer Norman Garwood. A lot is revealed into re-creating a city that is in ruins with storyboards and stills into how looked early on to what it would look like in the film. Even in the creation of props and slogans that was needed to create this world as Garwood goes into detail of what Gilliam wanted. The costume design section features audio commentary costume designer James Acheson about the costumes in a five-minute segment. Acheson through pictures and still goes into detail of what inspired the costumes while talking about how easy it was to work with Robert de Niro and Katherine Helmond about their costumes. Yet, he says the least favorite costume he made was the samurai. The segment also featured a rare video clip of a stuntman working on the Icarus suit that Sam wears in his dream to show he would fly.
The next section is the special effects where it features audio commentary from Richard Conway discussing some of the raw footage unveiled during the making of the film. Among them is the flying sequence which features a mechanic dummy flapping his wings and going up in the air while Conway revealed how difficult it was. Even where Jonathan Pryce tried to do it with a harness that only lasted 10 seconds. For the deleted eyeball sequences, stills, storyboards, Conway’s commentary, and pictures of the eyeballs are revealed which were a nightmare to make as it got cut because not everything worked. Other effect details revealed are the miniatures used for second-unit shots relating to cars, sets that were built, and the famous brick hands that capture Sam in the dream sequence on the ground. Conway also admits that making the Samurai costume and the visual effects for that character was a nightmare while he and James Acheson felt even more sorry for Winston Dennis to play that character. Other raw footage revealed is the forces of darkness dragging Jill’s cage in a rare, raw shot while a scene with Mrs. Terrain’s remains was another awful experience due to the smell.
The last major special feature is a nine-minute interview with late composer Michael Kamen about the film’s score. Kamen talks about creating a score around the song Brazil, a song he didn’t like very much, while talking about variations he made including a few score pieces that didn’t make it to the film revealed through raw footage. Even the first dream sequence played to a musical piece by Strauss. One of the hardest parts about the score was getting permission from the song’s publisher so that Kamen could get credit for the arrangements. With the help of Ray Cooper, Kamen was about to work around the song and create suites which he was proud of doing.
Two other features included in the second disc is the film’s theatrical trailer and a photo gallery of production and publicity stills relating to the film which includes rare posters and such.
The third and final disc of the DVD set is the 94-minute Love Conquers All version of Brazil presented in rough form and in full screen. The film itself in this shortened version is in fact an abomination. Many of the film’s fantasy sequences are cut. There’s a lot of continuity errors. No motivations or proper introduction of characters. A lot of the satirical and political elements of the film is cut out. A lot of subplots relating to Buttle/Tuttle confusion and Sam’s mother is cut out with characters not being fully realized. The pacing in several scenes are off and musical cues are misused.
Included in the third disc is a full-length commentary track by Gilliam expert David Morgan. Morgan’s commentary reveals what is cut and what is added to the Love Conquers All version. Morgan reveals that this version of the film really confuses the audience of what they’re seeing. Notably with the bad edits and cut material along with the humor being poorly-timed. It’s a must-see just to see how bad a studio can mess up a film for their own intent.
Also included in the entire set is a booklet featuring an essay by Jack Mathews. Mathews’ essay summarizes its history, the battle, and its impact while presenting what is Gilliam’s final cut of the film. The Criterion DVD box set for Brazil is definitely a must-have for fans of the film. Even as it reveals loads of details into the production of the film, the battle to release it, and everything else. It’s definitely Gilliam’s masterpiece as fans get to see the film in its most completed form.
Brazil is truly one of the greatest films ever made from the wondrous mind of Terry Gilliam. Featuring a towering leading performance from Jonathan Pryce plus an amazing supporting cast that includes Robert de Niro, Michael Palin, Kim Griest, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Ian Holm, and Peter Vaughn. It’s a film that is truly ambitious while not being overly pretentious nor with an overblown message. While audiences might be befuddled by its plot description, they won’t be once they see the film which displays a smart sense of humor. In the end, Brazil is a mesmerizing, witty, and dazzling film from Terry Gilliam that gives voice to the oppressed dreamers.
Terry Gilliam Films: Jabberwocky - Time Bandits - The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - The Fisher King - 12 Monkeys - Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas - The Brothers Grimm - (Tideland) - The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus - (The Zero Theorem) - (The Auteurs #38: Terry Gilliam)
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