Written by Kirk BairdFor Terry Gilliam fans, December brought an early gift in the form of the long-awaited Brazil on Blu-ray. Criterion’s deluxe package, with its lovingly restored high-definition transfer of the 27-year-old film, is one holiday present that will not disappoint.
Having co-written the final Monty Python film, 1983’s The Meaning of Life, and directed its ambitious and clever Crimson Permanent Assurance short, Gilliam, the most twisted and comically dark mind of the famed comedic group, still clearly had Python on the mind when he dreamt up Brazil. This Orwell-inspired tale of a paranoid city government sometime in our near future, muddled in inefficiency and paralyzed by bureaucracy while its population of grim and desperate citizens toils away to no real purpose, features brilliantly absurdist Python-esque gags and scathing commentary that echoes the best of the troupe’s work.
The protagonist is Sam Lowry, played with marvelous befuddlement and an eventual sense of derring-do by Jonathan Pryce, a happy cog in the bureaucratic machine who is jolted out of willful complacency when he encounters the woman of his dreams — literally — while attempting to correct a major government error not of his doing. These two disparate events yank him out of his placid life and place him in a position of danger, as an emboldened fugitive rebelling against a broken system who is motivated by love and justice.
In Brazil, Gilliam achieves a tricky thematic balance to his film: warnings of an impending Big Brother-like state (note the government propaganda posted on signs throughout the film: “Suspicion breeds confidence,” “Be safe — be suspicious”) and of the dehumanizing — and failing — technology that makes such a world possible; a brilliant dark comedy that happens to be set in dystopian world; a terrific science-fiction universe filled with stunning art direction; and an old-fashioned love story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy does everything he can to get her back.
To the latter, Gilliam and fellow screenwriters Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard cooked up a rather stunning and bleak conclusion to the film in being true to the stark mood of the story; however, the American studio behind Brazil, Universal, balked at the dark twist in favor of a more audience-friendly “Love Conquers All” version, which also chopped nearly 50 minutes from Gilliam’s submission. And thus began a contentious war between a filmmaker driven by artistic vision and a studio motivated by box-office receipts. It was Gilliam who ultimately prevailed, but only after the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded his version of Brazil as its top film, as well as awards for director and screenplay. Universal relented, and released a 132-minute “compromise cut” of the film, which included Gilliam’s original ending.
The Criterion Collection release includes two of the three versions of Brazil: disc one features Gilliam’s 142-minute director’s cut, while disc two features the studio’s 94-minute version of the film. Also included on disc two is the fascinating documentary The Battle of Brazil, detailing Gilliam’s struggles with Universal; What Is Brazil?, Rob Hedden’s on-set documentary; and the production notebook, consisting of interviews and video essays. The two-disc set comes with an informative essay booklet by film critic David Sterritt on the importance and merit of Gilliam’s master work.
While Brazil won no Academy Awards — nor was it nominated for any of the major categories save Best Original Screenplay — it nevertheless remains one of the great films of the 1980s and the unquestioned high point of Gilliam’s mostly brilliant and occasionally maddening film career. As important, Brazil stands as a testament to a director who battled the system…and, unlike the fictional world he created, won.