Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It is generally agreed that certain old films have become classics: Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz and so forth. It's much harder to come up with a list of films post-1980 that will find a similar consensus. Being wildly successful guarantees little, as trendy hits turn sour, blockbusters are frequently dissed and critics tend to champion their personal favorites as 'guilty pleasures.' But Terry Gilliam's 1985 Brazil is fast becoming an acknowledged classic. It only looks better with the passing years, and its core of admirers is growing, especially on college campuses.
The brilliant, Oscar nominated script by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown started life with the title 1984½, which perhaps too accurately pegs the film's ambition. Getting audiences to sit through film versions of Orwell's depressing totalitarian fantasy was never easy. Brazil adds appealing, essential content: Beautiful flights of fancy and a tough-minded (but whimsical) sense of British humor.
An office mishap with a fly changes a "T" to a "B" on a piece of paper, with the result that an innocent shoe repairman named Buttle is imprisoned and tortured to death in place of a rogue air conditioning 'terrorist' named Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro). Non-ambitious clerk Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) does all the work for his decision-paralyzed boss Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) and becomes involved in the Buttle case by trying to deliver a refund check to the man's traumatized widow. Sam also meets Harry Tuttle when the latter swoops down to perform some welcome air conditioning repair, an incident that puts Lowry in Dutch with an 'authorized' repairman, Spoor (Bob Hoskins). Tuttle's wildcat services have landed him on the arrest sheets but he has nothing to do with the constant deadly bombings that interrupt the luncheons of Lowry's decadent mother Ida (Katherine Helmond) and her friends. In his daydreams Lowry sees himself as a flying Galahad fighting a giant Samurai warrior to save a beautiful princess. He's shocked to find that Jill Layton, one of Mrs. Buttle's neighbors (Kim Greist) is a dead ringer for his daydream princess. To find Jill, Lowry accepts a promotion to the "Information Retrieval" department, which is actually an Orwellian Ministry of Fear specializing in torture. Sam's 'friend' Jack Lint (Michael Palin) feigns sincerity but is actually the department's top interrogation specialist. If Sam isn't careful, both he and Jill could end up in Jack Lint's torture chamber.
When talking to Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock divided film directors into two categories, "Simplifiers" and "Complicators." He proudly classified himself in the first category. The Complicators seem to rule the present state of filmmaking, as MTV aesthetics have dictated that no single shot will do when five can take its place. Trendy directors trowel on layer after layer of 'visual fabric' in the belief that crowded soundtracks and busy images make films ''more real." Terry Gilliam's trio of fantastic adventures Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are packed with detail and often presented at a dizzying pace, but have little in common with the action-oriented chaos we now know too well. Gilliam has the unique talent of creating an entire 'world' with terrific short strokes of visual genius: Everything we see has a maximum impact, so nothing has to be overdone or oversold. It's the difference between Content and clutter.
Terry Gilliam wisely constructs his bureaucratic Dystopia from the remnants of the past, which immediately puts the look of Brazil ahead of 90% of its peers. Movies as diverse as Things to Come and Fahrenheit 451 imagine future styles that soon become obsolete. Avoiding that trap, Gilliam's retro-mechanical automatic typewriters and Fresnel-enhanced data monitors already look like outmoded junk, suggesting Orwell's crumbling infrastructure while at the same time resembling nothing familiar to us now. 1984 was set almost exclusively in rotting tenement blocks but Gilliam gives his Sam Lowry a rich mother to show the gulf between the haves and have-nots. Ida Lowry and her decadent set enjoy their privileges and live in total isolation from unpleasant realities.
The economic disparity yields unlimited opportunities for wicked satire. Ida undergoes bizarre saran-wrap cosmetic surgery to make herself younger, while her less fortunate friend Mrs. Alma Terrain (Barbara Hicks) goes to another quack and is slowly reduced to gelatinized gore. A typographical error results in the utter destruction of the Dickensian Buttle family by government agents, but Ida and Alma are resentful when their chi-chi luncheon is interrupted by a full-scale terror attack.
Denied peace on any level, some of the "proles" refuse to play the game. Harry Tuttle swings through the skyscrapers like Spiderman, doing his bit by helping ordinary citizens when the official plumbers won't. Shocked by the Buttle mishap, Jill Layton registers her protest through the bureaucratic labyrinth, and succeeds only in having her name added to Terrorist rolls. Sam Lowry wants only an escape to his daydreams but inadvertently becomes Public Enemy number one. The most shocking charge against him is that he left some irrelevant receipts un-filed.
Brazil has moments of liberating joy to balance its darker corners: Sam delights in his fantasies, turning loops through the clouds after kissing his dream girl. He also shares Harry Buttle's triumph over the petty tyranny of repairman Spoor: Subversive plumbing, like vengeance, is best served cold. Brazil remains faithful to Orwell through Terry Gilliam's creative infidelity. When all is lost, we're treated to a briefly liberating daydream in which Robin Hood comes to the rescue.
Terry Gilliam's unique design sense enables Brazil to dwarf the visual imagination of other Science Fiction fantasies. Jack Lint's torture chamber is a colossal open space and not the expected secret chamber, which tells us his activities are so routine, they don't need to be hidden away. Myriad in-jokes, references to other films (an elegant nod to Battleship Potemkin) and Gilliam's peculiar brand of Python-informed poetic lunacy are everywhere, as when a shower of office paper scattered by a Terror explosion -- a chilling precursor of 9/11 -- magically regroups to bring down an 'enemy of the state.' Other gags seem inspired by earlier traditions, as with the maddening shared desk that keeps Lowry and his co-worker engaged in a constant war of nerves. It reminds us of the hapless lab manager in the classic Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit, the one who sees his workspace shrinking and under attack by forces beyond his control.
The mark of Gilliam's genius is that his visual gags communicate the petty tyranny of a bureaucratic state so clearly ... a ten year-old can watch Brazil and grasp its essential message. The film is too beautiful to be depressing and too imaginative to second-guess. It's a step beyond the novel 1984.
Jonathan Pryce is marvelously flexible as the wistful but determined Sam Lowry, while Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Jim Broadbent and Peter Vaughan take roles as various functionaries in the all-too familiar society, where war with undefined Terrorists never ends, and the economy is bolstered by making every day Christmas day. Robert de Niro lobbied for the lead role and was happy to settle for the smaller Harry Tuttle part. Bob Hoskins is suitably demonic as Lowry's plumber/tormentor. Slighted by director Gilliam as the picture's weak link, Kim Greist is actually quite fine as Lowry's activist dream girl.
Criterion's single-disc DVD of Brazil, The Final Cut is a quality update of an earlier multi-disc release that had more extras (including the shorter 'Happy Ending' Universal re-cut) but was hampered by a non-enhanced letterboxed transfer. The full boxed set has also been reissued, so collectors lacking only the newer transfer will not be forced to fully re-invest. The transfer is indeed vastly improved and holds together much better on larger monitors. The three-channel Dolby Stereo track still features the 1940s Latin hit tune Brazil as the basis for Michael Kamen's score.
The single-disc release also retains Terry Gilliam's highly praised original director commentary, recounting the director's entire highly publicized battle with Universal to get his original cut released. Jack Mathews, Newsday film critic and author of provides an insert text essay. Sean-Wright Anderson is the disc producer for Criterion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Terry Gilliam commentary, liner notes by Jack Mathews
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 30, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input.