It was very much in character for Hollywood—and particularly, the meddlesome 70s/80s-era brass at Universal—to hold a movie like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil back from the masses. Completed in 1985, Brazil was first unspooled to the studio bosses in an infamous screening that resulted in abject anger from those who bankrolled the project; one wonders what they thought they were going to get, since we have to assume they read the film’s incendiary, ultimately Oscar-nominated script by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard (from an uncredited idea by Jabberwocky screenwriter and former Help! writer Chuck Alverson). Or, hell, maybe they DIDN’T read it; they just didn’t have the time. At any rate, Universal’s confidence evaded Brazil from day one. Their complaints: the film was too long, and incredibly depressing, while also falling very much on the weird side. So they demanded the film be recut and the ending be changed before they’d put a penny up for distribution and marketing. Gilliam did take the movie into the editing room, excising twenty minutes from its running time. But he flat out refused to change its heartbreaking ending, which he rightfully felt was integral to the story.
So the film sat on the shelf, a victim of spite. And it sat and sat until Gilliam decided to take unprecedented action. First came a lawsuit against Universal. Then Gilliam started bankrolling embarrassment-aimed ads in the trade papers asking short-sighted then-studio-head Sid Sheinberg (the villain of this story) when he was going to release Brazil. This infuriated Sheinberg, who dug his heels in for a long-haul ruckus. “It happens with every film,” Gilliam later said. “There comes a moment where the money and the creative elements all come crashing together. Everybody's under a lot of pressure, and everybody is panicking about what works and what doesn't. And the studios and the money always have one perspective and the creative people have another one, and usually what happens is a lot of compromises get made.”
However, at the end of that metaphorical rope, and refusing to compromise, Gilliam—like Brazil’s bureaucracy-battling protagonist—heroically made a final end run around the studio, stabbing it right in its barely-beating heart. He stole a print of his movie and showed it to the members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. And they, naturally, went nuts over it. Seeing this as their own chance to become giant-killing jacks, the organization handed this unreleased movie its year-end Best Picture award, along with Best Director and Best Screenplay. Gilliam was now in unprecedented territory. Sid Sheinberg had been vanquished; Universal then had no real choice but the release the film as is (but this didn’t stop them, maddeningly, from selling a gutted version of the movie to television; you can see this ludicrous, criminally-slashed version on Criterion’s monumental three-disc release of the film, which also includes critic Jack Mathews laudibly detailed documentary adaptation of his 1987 book The Battle of Brazil).
Finally, and happily, justice was served. I balk at imagining what would've befallen Brazil had Gilliam not stuck to his guns. The movie is brilliantly twisted satire, brain-stimulating enough to be comparable to only a few cinematic works (2001, Donnie Darko, and Eraserhead, among them). Upon his third film as a solo director, Gilliam’s main claim to fame at Brazil’s release was as the one American among the band of Brits in the Monty Python comedy troupe. Though he performed with them sparingly, his biggest contribution had been as their master of animation for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, their legendary TV show that ran from 1969 to 1974 (to today, his Python work demands to be seen as one of film's most distinctive animation purveyances; absolutely no one can imitate it without being called out). Before then, the Minnesota-born Gilliam had been a writer/illustrator associated with the notoriously wrathful Harvey Kurtzman—the 50s-era Mad magazine mastermind—with whom he worked on Help!, Trump, and Humbug, three of Kurtzman’s short-lived 60s humor magazines (which also ran pieces by Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Jack Davis, and many more underground/Mad comic figures). It was at Help! that Gilliam met John Cleese, and there his association with the Pythons was born.
It’s Gilliam, as the creator of the Pythons' bizarre cut-out-based animation as well as a notably enriched style of live-action, who gave the troupe their unmistakable visual character. As the co-director of 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1979's Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and 1983's Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, he was mainly charged for each film’s unique appearance (his directing co-hort, Terry Jones, was primarily involved in directing the actor’s performances). Before Brazil, Gilliam had struck out on his own only twice, with Jabberwocky and Time Bandits. Both were wonderfully sick variations on basic myths and children’s stories, strewn with cruel jokes and strange, sometimes frightening but nevertheless forward-thinking scenes barely suited for children. Time Bandits has, since its 1981 release, become a cult movie, but in being uncategorizable as a kid’s or an adult’s film, it was at the time a box-office disappointment in spite of its stellar cast (Sean Connery, David Warner, Ralph Richardson, Michael Palin, Kenny Baker, John Cleese, and Shelley Duvall). The faintly light mood with which Time Bandits begins is always being battered by an unrelenting yet very funny grimness. However, both it and 1977’s Jabberwocky are fitting predecessors to Brazil; the gloom that hovered over those two films is securely anchored down in Gilliam’s 1985 movie, but it’s intensified by iron-clad batches of irony, symbolism, allusion, grotesquery, satire, and battalions of remarkable shot set-ups that, by themselves, make Brazil unforgettable.
Nothing is what it seems in Brazil, and that extends to the title itself. The country--itself far from Heaven--never makes an appearance, unless one wants to postulate that the puffy clouds that open the film hang somewhere above the South American coastline. The song that’s warbled over this shot ("Aquarela do Brasil" by Ary Barroso, sung here by Geoff and Maria Muldaur, the latter being synonymous with the 1974 smash hit "Midnight at the Oasis"). The 1939 composition first appeared in Disney’s 1943 animated feature Saludos Amigos (its sixth), and it's ubiquitous in Michael Kamen’s beautifully lush score; it’s a tune about a paradise eons away from the heavily-industrialized, never-named English city that serves as Brazil’s imposing “Somewhere in the 20th Century” setting. Things are run here by an oppressive hybrid of government and big business called The Ministry of Information, unstoppable in its ruthless debt-collecting, in its harsh culling of political undesirables, and in its ill-starred dehumanization of the Everyman, represented here by the passive, dreamy, unambitious Ministry rubber-stamper Sam Lowry—our hero, played impeccably by a nervous, restless Jonathan Pryce.
The movie literally explodes into life with a crew of Ministry stormtroopers ransacking the flat occupied by tough girl Jill Layton (Kim Greist). Here, they cut a pointless hole in her floor so the huns can make a more spectacular entrance into her downstairs neighbor’s apartment. It’s here that the Buttle family "lives," crammed into a small space, about to celebrate Christmas (Brazil stands with Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut as one of the most unlikely movies with a Yuletide setting). Wrongly accused of being an anti-ministry terrorist (after a “bug” falls into a Ministry machine sending out an APB out on a “Mr. Tuttle”), Buttle is fitted with a choking straight-jacket and is whisked away from his mortified wife and kids, definitely to a deathly fate.
Later, it’s Sam who discovers that a dreadful mistake has been made. Utilizing the M.O.I.’s amusingly retro-fitted technology (the computers here look like typewriters with their innards hanging out), he finds that it was Tuttle, not Buttle, who’s been targeted for termination. It’s Sam’s wimpish, outwardly intimidating boss Kurtzmann (named, of course, after Gilliam’s one-time mentor, and played with supreme comic timing by the great Ian Holm; there's another character in the film named "Mr. HELPman," played by Peter Vaughn, and I have it on good authority that Brazil is an extended homage to Harvey Kurtzman, right down to the cluttered art direction, which mirrored Kurtzman's office). The cowering Kurtzman charges Sam with the unfortunate task of consoling and reimbursing the Buttle family. In the film’s most shattering moment, Mrs. Buttle (Sheila Reid) is apoplectic with grief, with an outpouring of grief to which the almost-dead-inside Sam hardly knows how to respond. Here, Sam gets a field-trip look at the misery his all-powerful agency continually doles out to the innocent and guilty alike. And it’s here that Sam also gets his first glimpse of the woman who’s been the focus of his winged dreams: Jill Layton. However, the feeling isn't mutual. She sees him as what he is: an agent—albeit an unwitting one—of evil. Thus the breakdown of Sam's barely-held loyalties begins.
Sam is steered even further away from his blissful yet throttling ignorance when, in the middle of the night, his air conditioning conks out. After putting in a no-avail call to Central Services, the duct-working subsidiary of the MOI, he accepts the help of Tuttle—yes, that Tuttle—who doubles as a rogue heating specialist and freedom fighter. It’s notable that both Tuttle (Robert De Niro, in a welcome and rare post-Raging Bull supporting role) and Jill are the only two characters in Brazil who have American accents, whereas the most despicable (including Michael Palin as Sam's torture-happy best friend, Bob Hoskins as a by-the-books Central Services repairman, Jim Broadbent as a butchering plastic surgeon, and co-writer Charles McKeown as a nosy Ministry cohort) have impossibly thick British accents. There’s an obvious correlation to a certain 18th Century anti-Brit revolution to be had here; it's almost enough to make one wonder why, if this his view of the English, Gilliam gave up his American citizenship long ago. Anyway, it’s through both Jill and Tuttle that Sam begins to see the government he for which he toils as the monster it truly is, and thereby experiences the freedom he’s been longing for in dreamy interludes where he visions himself as a great, armored man perpetually in flight and fight against a massive metal samurai (his phantasmagoric vision of the Ministry).
As with all great films, Brazil can viewed many times before all its riches can be processed. It is clearly about the eternal battle between the oppressed and the oppressors. And while it makes us root for the freedom-fighters, it also makes us recoil at their bloody tactics (Brazil is a particularly interesting movie viewed today, in this light). Here, terrorism is seen as a long-awaited liberation from a government whose power has been woefully misused; however, it’s also portrayed as a method of rebellion that can spell out only doom--or at least an unhonorable victory--for its perpetrators and their targets. There are no winners here, and this makes Gilliam's POV brilliantly elusive. In addition, surely, Brazil is a put-down of out-of-control, circuitous technology and disgustingly egotistical higher-classed values (symbolized by Sam’s mother, the disgustingly vain and well-connected Ida Lowry, played with obvious relish by Katherine Helmond). Brazil is a condemnation of a people who’ve buried their roots, who’ve failed to see the merits of life’s basics, and are consistently being drowned in the denials provided by television, wealth, face lifts, commercialism, sexual fantasy, computers, and artificiality.
Though Gilliam and company make much comic hay of this setting, they portray a world in which one can’t breathe; as the years go by since Brazil’s release, it looks more and more precient, much like Dr. Strangelove and Network before it. It hit the Reagan-flavored mid-1980s as a political and moral warning laced with a poisonous comic timing that alludes to a long list of previous influences, including 1984, The Crowd, Potemkin, Casablanca, Duck Soup, Metropolis, Alice in Wonderland, and Mad Max, to name but a few.
However we wish to interpret Brazil (and many have been perplexed and turned off by it—almost as many, I’d bet, as have embraced it), none can deny that, at the VERY least in a technical and directorial sense, it succeeds magnificently. It builds a ridiculously complete world (and did so at the bargain price of a $9 million budget; it’s still one of the most expensive-looking movies I’ve ever seen). Its time period is unpinnable. Everyone is fabulously dressed in 1930s garb, but is surrounded by art director Norman Garwood’s Oscar-nominated and often decrepit futurism. It’s not surprising to see actors donned in vintage fedoras wandering around an apartment perfect for Blade Runner, and then to see another set of tomorrow-decked players splayed about in an environment that could've been constructed for an old Warner Brothers gangster pic. Roger Pratt’s gleaming photography--a strangling stir of realism and expressionism--meanwhile transmits more information than any boring exposition could ever unleash. And ILM's George Gibbs contributes many moments of stunning special effects work.
All of this belies an often sickening illogic that makes Brazil one of the most memorable of movies; it’s ironically sort of easy to feel sorry for those beleaguered Universal bigwigs who, in all fairness, probably didn’t know what had hit them upon seeing the film for the first time (if the film was once 20 minutes longer than it actually was, the execs probably did a good thing by making Gilliam retire once again to the editing room because, as it stands, Brazil is a steamroller at almost 2 ½ hours). With its head-splitting final 30 minutes, in which ending after ending unfolds, with Sam’s fever dreams folding in on his “reality,” Gilliam’s movie is truly unlike any other. There are few scene transitions (the director loves the shock cut); there are few people to truly like (only Jill and Tuttle remain unscathed); the film builds a suffocating uncertainty that keeps us on edge until its last moments. By the time these unfurl, the viewer’s comfort zones have been obliterated by blast after debilitating blast. The cinematic parade that is Brazil’s notorious finale is so unforgiving in its pace and intensity that one emerges feeling rather irreparably dented by it. Brazil is always pulling us in different directions. It's a place where evolution is devolution: moving forward is nothing more than stepping way back in Gilliam’s onscreen destruction--and celebration--of fascism’s warm and awful glow.