85. BRAZIL (1985)

“Port Talbot is a steel town, where everything is covered with a grey iron ore dust.  Even the beach is completely littered with dust, it’s just black.  The sun was setting, and it was really quite beautiful.  The contrast was extraordinary.  I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in these strange Latin escapist songs like ‘Brazil.’  The music transported him somehow and made his world less grey.”–Terry Gilliam on his inspiration for the title Brazil

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DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Peter Vaughan, Bob Hoskins, Charles McKeown

PLOT:  Sam Lowry is a lowly, unambitious bureaucrat working in the Records Department in an authoritarian society “somewhere in the Twentieth century” who frequently dreams he is a winged man fighting a giant robotic samurai to save a beautiful woman.  An error results in the government picking up a Mr. Buttle as a suspected terrorist instead of a Mr. Tuttle; Buttle dies during interrogation. Sam visits Buttle’s widow to deliver a refund check for her dead husband, and finds that the upstairs neighbor, Jill, looks exactly like his dream woman; he transfers to the “Information Retrieval” Department to access Jill’s personal files and learn more about her, but ends up running afoul of powerful government interests.

Still from Brazil (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Brazil is the second part of Gilliam’s unofficial “Imagination” trilogy, which began with Time Bandits and ended with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  Time Bandits is told from the perspective of a child, Brazil from that of an adult, and Munchausen from an elderly man.  Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm and Monty Python buddy Michael Palin all appeared in Time Banditsas well.
  • Terry Gilliam co-wrote the script for Brazil with Charles McKeown (who also plays Harvey Lime here, and would later collaborate on the scripts for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and playwright Tom Stoppard.  The three together were nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  Novelist Charles Alverson also worked on an early version of the script, but he and Gilliam had a falling out and he was not credited for his work, although he was paid.
  • Besides Best Original Screenplay, Brazil was also nominated for a Best Art Direction Oscar.
  • The movie is named after its theme song, Ary Baroso’s 1939 “Aquarela do Brazil” [“Watercolors of Brazil”].  “Brazil” represents the exotic, colorful world (with an amber moon) that Sam dreams of escaping to. According to one story, the film was originally to be titled 1984 1/2, but the title was dropped over worries about lawsuits from George Orwell’s estate (a fine adaptation of 1984 had been released the previous year).
  • Robert De Niro read the script and lobbied to play the part of Jack, but Gilliam turned the star down because he wanted Palin in the role.  De Niro accepted the role of Tuttle instead.
  • Brazil has a legendary distribution story.  The film was released overseas in Gilliam’s original cut, but in the U.S. Universal Studios did not like the unhappy ending and attempted to recut the film, reducing it from 142 minutes to 94 minutes and editing the ending in an attempt to give it a happy ending.  (This studio cut of the film later played on television and has been dubbed the “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil).  Gilliam opposed the changes and feuded publicly with Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, blaming him personally for holding up the movie’s release, appearing on the television program “Good Morning America” and holding up a picture of Sheinberg, and paying for a full page ad in Variety reading “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie?”  Against studio orders, Gilliam screened the uncut film for free at the University of Southern California.  Curious critics attended the screenings, and before the movie had been released to U.S. theaters, the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Brazil Best Picture of 1985.  In a compromise agreed to by Gilliam, Universal cut only 11 minutes from the complete version, left the unhappy ending largely intact, and released the movie soon after (reportedly so as not to jeopardize its chances at winning an Academy Award).
  • Calling its style “retro-futurism,” Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet credit Brazil‘s art design with influencing their vision for Delicatessen and The City of Lost ChildrenBrazil’s junkyard of the future look also directly inspired the visual sensibilities of movies such as Dark City, Tim Burton‘s Batman, and 2011’s Sucker Punch.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some may nominate Sam’s dream of soaring as a mechanical angel battling a giant robotic samurai, or the torturer posed in his decrepit doll’s mask in the foreground with his tiny victim chained in the center of a massive open-air tower in the distant background, but it’s Katherine Helmond’s personal plastic surgeon gripping and stretching her facial flab impossibly tight that’s the most striking, incisive and unexpected of Brazil‘s many visual non sequiturs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Terry Gilliam explained his vision for the milieu he molds in Brazil

Original trailer for Brazil

as one that’s “very much like our world” but “just off by five degrees.”  He was shooting for an atmosphere that’s uncannily familiar, something just strange enough to shock the viewer while still highlighting the absurdities of modern existence.  Watching Brazil‘s many surreal touches—as when what appears to be a giant boozing tramp peers over a horizon dominated by cooling towers painted sky blue with white clouds—most viewers will conclude Gilliam overshot the five degrees at which he was aiming.  But in the unlikely event the rest of the film isn’t strange enough for you, wait for the finale in which Gilliam pulls out reality’s remaining stops, including a scene where a man is literally killed by paperwork.

COMMENTS:  Terry Gilliam wasn’t kidding when he located Brazil “somewhere in the twentieth century.”  Though sometimes considered as science fiction, this film is not set in a future that could someday be, but in a fantastic alternate world miscellaneously mixing mechanized elements from the bloody industrialized century that brought us totalitarianism, terrorism, two world wars, and air conditioning.  The architecture of Brazil‘s society brings to mind the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s and 1930s.  The Information Ministry is fronted by a giant art-deco eagle that merges sleek modernist abstraction with fascist statuary.  The characters’ wardrobes are temporal wormholes that open somewhere between the 1920s and 1950s; even low-level functionaries wear felt hats and gray three piece suits to work.  (Katherine Helmond’s leopard-skin high-heel hat is an obvious sartorial exception here; it could only have been fashionable in the stoned 1960s or the tacky 1970s).  The propaganda posters that litter the movie’s every wall (with cheery slogans like “loose talk is noose talk”) are variously patterned on Soviet and Nazi (and even British) wartime posters or cheery advertising from 1930s magazines.  Television is omnipresent, but it mostly broadcasts movies and shows from the 1940s and earlier (Casablanca, black and white Westerns and the Marx Brothers are featured presentations).

Although Sam’s dream sequences where he flies on golden mechanical wings and fights a giant robotic samurai are done with then state-of-the-art effects (that stand up beautifully today), Gilliam mostly mines cinema’s past for Brazil‘s stylistic elements; this grab-bag of film techniques further belies the supposedly futuristic setting.  The drab gray color schemes of the city mimic monochromatic film.  Dramatic shots, lighting, odd camera angles, and abstract designs hearken back to German expressionism of the 1910s and 1920s (indeed, the world of Brazil‘s looks like it might have been designed by Fritz Lang if he’d survived to 1985 and been handed a fifteen million dollar budget).  The characters’ fedoras, the double-crosses, and the cynical tone of paranoia and distrust evoke 1940s film noir.  Pryce delivers a couple of out-of-place slapstick routines that could have come out of Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times (1936): in the most famous, he shares a desk with a man in a neighboring office, and they engage in a tug-of-war through the wall.  Further broadcasting the movie’s intent to merge the cinema of the past 85 years, the rescue scene directly quotes from the classic Soviet propaganda film The Battleship Potemkin (1925).  The theme song comes from 1939, and even Michael Kamen’s brilliantly overwrought, melodramatic incidental music, with its swelling heroic and romantic themes, simulates a symphonic soundtrack from Hollywood’s golden age.

Just as the film’s look and atmosphere is a messy amalgamation of styles from across the decades, the machines and technologies that dominate this world exist outside of time.  Gourmet steak is served in a mushy green lumps (is it Soylent brand?) A few security robots roam the halls of the ministry, but they are just elaborate clattering riggings housing a camera on an eyestalk; they look like they’ve been built from leftover 1950s sci-fi B-movie parts, though they beep like R2D2.  Computers are also everywhere, but they resemble old Smith-Corona typewriters with mounds of gears and tubing attached, except that they’re equipped with transparent crystal monitors that look futuristic even today.  Gilliam materializes the intense mechanization of this world as a series of ductwork and flexible plastic tubings that stick out of every wall; even swanky restaurants have giant pipes running through the dining room floor. The movie begins with an advertisement pitching the ability to spiff up your old-fashioned ducts with Central Service’s new line of multicolored ducts.  Sam is bewildered when he looks behind a panel in his apartment wall and sees its stuffed full of a convoluted maze of hoses, wires and and tubes.  There’s a jury-rigged, junkyard look to the Brazil‘s industrial appliances, as if each new machine was built on top of an older machine, with everything constantly growing more and more complex by a process of accumulation.  And the machines people depend on to live their daily lives are constantly breaking down.  Sam’s alarm system, apparently designed by Rube Goldberg for George Jetson, not only fails to go off, making him late for work, but also pours his morning coffee onto his toast.

The malfunctioning machines of Brazil are little images representing the biggest dysfunctional apparatus of all: the modern State.  The world of Brazil is a horrifying dictatorship, but its citizens are accustomed to it and don’t notice.  When there’s a terrorist bombing in the restaurant, no one reacts with anything but mild annoyance, and management thoughtfully puts up a screen to shield the diners’ eyes and sensibilities from the bloody limbs scattered about the next table.  The embodiment of the State’s otherwise disembodied evil is Michael Palin’s Jack, who disgusts us because he’s so normal and respectable.  He’s invariably polite and proper, he’s a dedicated family man (though he sometimes confuses his triplet daughters’ names), he buys a stack of Christmas gifts for his co-workers, and he looks out for Sam’s upward social mobility, goading him to conform and fit in.  Jack just does his job, and he doesn’t even notice the bloodstains on his smock anymore, nor does it ever cross his mind that there’s anything to hide or be ashamed of about his job in the trenches “retrieving information” and combating terrorism.  Evil has never been more banal than Palin.  In Brazil, there’s no sense of Big Brother, of a cabal pulling strings behind the scenes; society simply seem to have gradually slipped into this horrid condition unnoticed, as a result of everyone doing their job unquestioningly, following proper procedure, playing their role as an insignificant cog in the State’s vast machinery.

It’s bureaucracy and paperwork, the reduction of human beings to slips of paper and signatures on the proper form, that keeps this world going, much in the same way that obsessive documentation kept the Nazi regime running (like the bureaucrats in Brazil, Nazi charged Jews for expenses related to their own deportations and executions).  There has never been a movie in history so contemptuous of paperwork (a character even dies onscreen in a hail of forms), and that’s one of the features that allow viewers to connect with the story.  Brazil is what the entire world would look like if the CIA was under the direction of the IRS.  Every major plot development stems from a slip up in paperwork; a name misprinted on a form will eventually lead to the death of at least two characters, and the permanent insanity of another.  But paperwork is also the source of most of the film’s mirth.  A renegade becomes an enemy of the state because he illegally fixes people’s heating and air conditioning units outside of the state servicing monopoly, without filling out the proper forms; he works like Batman, sneaking in at night to work on the AC and sliding down a zip line to safety when he’s done.  (Gilliam once expressed astonishment that the political right embraced the film—he shouldn’t have been surprised after he made a folk hero out of a freelancer who valiantly defies ridiculous government over-regulation).  When stormtroopers seize Mr. Buttle, they make a terrified Mrs. Buttle sign a receipt for her stolen husband (and are careful to take their own receipt for her receipt).  Sam stymies a couple of meddlesome technicians by asking them if they have a form 27b/6, which sends one of the pair into an apopleptic fit.  A victim facing torture is advised to confess quickly so as not to jeopardize his credit rating.  Anyone who’s ever stood in the wrong line at the Department of Motor Vehicles for a half-hour can relate to the devilishly funny absurdity of Brazil.

Scrapped together from various historical parts, with added twists of both fantasy and science fiction, Brazil is a unique world for the viewer to explore. It’s also one of the most densely detailed movies you’re likely to see.  Because jokes, visual quips, and even important plot points pass by in the blink of an eye, it’s worth a second or third viewing to catch all the minutia (try to read every one of the propaganda posters pasted on every wall).  My favorite blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag occurs when Sam has to pause in his pursuit of his dream girl to pick up some papers he’s dropped on the street at the insistence of a busybody out walking her dog.  She raps loudly on the sign advising “keep your city tidy” with her cane as she browbeats the meek Sam, who’s still accustomed to following the conventions he’s grown up with.  At the end of the scene we briefly see the evidence that this old lady practices what she preaches: she’s placed masking tape over her yapping lapdog’s anus to keep it from pooping on city sidewalks.

Gilliam’s genius in Brazil was to recast George Orwell’s propaganda-ridden nightmare 1984 not as some disaster that might happen in the distant future if humanity is not vigilant, but as something that has already happened, and went unnoticed.  The ugly industrialization, the quiet assimilation of machines into daily life, the crushing bureaucracy, and the dehumanization and insignificance of the individual are all events that actually came to pass in the twentieth century. Brazil‘s dislocation in time isn’t just a random choice decided on because of its cool-looking steampunk aesthetic.  By creating a world that incorporates elements from his grandfather’s generation to his own, Gilliam compresses a bleak century into a little less than two and a half hours, and makes us chuckle at its sorry excesses and horrors.  But while we laugh, the hair on the back of our heads rises a little in fear—because we can still feel the hot breath of modernity stirring on the nape of our own necks.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie is awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline. It’s as if Gilliam sat down and wrote out all of his fantasies, heedless of production difficulties, and then they were filmed – this time, heedless of sense.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“…a glimmering hunk of fractured brilliance riddled with Orwellian paranoia encased in a production design seemingly pieced together from the shared dreams of Franz Kakfa and Salvador Dali…”–Wesley Morris, The San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“…a willfully absurdist dystopian fable about an impossible future that feels more like an antiquated past, a Romantic pretzel-twisting of Orwell and a nursery-rhyme-inflected sci-fi dream epic that appropriates equal parts Fritz Lang, Hellzapoppin’, Orson Welles, and illustrator Brian Froud.”–Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (1998 director’s cut re-release)

IMDB LINK: Brazil (1985)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Wide Angle/Closeup: The Terry Gilliam Files – Look for and click on the still from Brazil to reveal links to interviews with Gilliam, Palin, and production designer Norman Garwood, along with production sketches and audio files of script read-throughs by Gilliam, Pryce and McKeown

Terry Gilliam | Dreams: Brazil – The Brazil page at Dreams, the Terry Gilliam fansite, contains a FAQ, production stills, and a vintage collection of promotional material

Shot to Remember: Welcome to Brazil – Gilliam annotates a series of stills from a climactic moment of the film for “DGA Quarterly” (Vol. 2, No. 3 – Fall 2006)

Modernity and Mise-en-Scene: Terry Gilliam and Brazil – Article by Keith James Hamel for “Images” magazine on the film’s relationship to modernity and how Gilliam employs an “optimistic” mise-en-scene for fantasy sequences and a “pessimistic” one for scenes based in reality

Brazil (1985) at AMC Filmsite – a detailed overview of Brazil from critic Tim Dirks as part of the “Greatest Films” series; it includes a complete synopsis of the movie that runs for several pages

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut – Journalist Jack Matthews recounts the epic battle between Gilliam and Universal over the release of Brazil

DVD INFO: Universal’s 1998 DVD release (buy) is the currently in-print version of Brazil, and the one used to compose this review.  This release restores Gilliam’s original cut of the film, including the 12 minutes cut from the U.S. theatrical release (much of which consisted of a single scene of Jack Vaughn, dressed as Santa Claus, talking to the imprisoned Jonathan Pryce).  This release is unfortunately light on extras, containing only production notes, cast and crew bios, and the original trailer.  Designed before widescreen TVs became commonplace, the image is both letterboxed and pillarboxed to recreate the proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, resulting in a small ini picture playing in a large black space; this setup initially takes some getting used to.

True fans of the film may want to track down the out-of-print but readily available 3-disc Criterion Collection edition (buy), which was the first release to restore the film to the director’s original vision and includes commentary by Gilliam, the usual Criterion booklet, the featurettes “The Battle of Brazil” (detailing the spat between Gilliam and Universal) and “What is Brazil” (a “making of” mini-doc), and production notes.  A curiosity takes up the third disc: “Love Conquers All,” the infamous bowdlerized 94 minute studio cut of the film that was only shown on American television, with commentary by critic David Morgan explaining the edits.  Criterion also issued a single disc edition of Brazil (buy) containing only the complete film and Gilliam’s commentary.

Universal is released a Blu-ray edition of Brazil on July 12, 2011, sans extras (buy). In December 2012 Criterion released a two-dsic Blu-ray set (buy) that appears to have all the same features as their 3-disc DVD edition.

(This movie was first nominated for review by “Kass,” who added, “not seeing Brazil on the list struck me as a terrible injustice to weirdness and Terry Gilliam.”  Consider this injustice rectified.  We would have fixed the oversight earlier, but we lost the paperwork.   Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “85. BRAZIL (1985)”

  1. There seems to be something wrong with this article, at least for me that is. Whenever I try to open the full article, it only shows from the top of the page down to the trailer.

  2. Thank you!
    I discovered this website a couple days ago and have been reading through the list ever since…I’m home from work with the flu and it’s been keeping me entertained.
    I shall be commenting more in the future. :-)

  3. Actually, the high-heel hat was designed in the early 1930s by Elsa Schiapparelli during the heyday of Surrealist art. 1960s and 1970s hats were nowhere near as interesting.

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