With its dark comedy, futuristic dystopia, and vaguely medieval fantasy sequences, Brazil isn’t just the most celebrated movie of Terry Gilliam’s post-Monty Python career. It’s also arguably the Terry Gilliamiest of the lot—a filmography largely defined by the tropes established in Brazil (the definitive Criterion Collection treatment of which has just been reissued on Blu-ray). At its core, the movie has a simple idea: a more antic, less sorrowful, but no less satirical (or, in its way, despairing) version of Orwell’s 1984 (which was made into a 1984 film around the same time Gilliam was filming Brazil), concerning Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), an unassuming employee of a vast and impenetrable totalitarian bureaucracy.
Sam’s plight is easy enough to summarize: while investigating a clerical error that led to the interrogation and death of a man named Buttle, rather the intended target, he meets Jill (Kim Greist), a woman he has pictured in his rich fantasy life (hence the medieval-tinged sequences reminiscent of Time Bandits, The Fisher King, and of course Monty Python and the Holy Grail). In attempting to find out more about his real-life dream girl, Sam rises through the government offices, and also crosses paths with the real Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a rogue repairman who fixes ducts without the proper paperwork. Sam, Jill, and Tuttle are, at various points, pursued as terrorists.
Yet even with a straightforward satirical hook, Brazil teems; it starts slowly not because nothing is going on, but because the screen so overflows with visual ideas that it takes awhile for the story (and the audience) to find its bearing. Gilliam’s plotting is intentionally digressive and dreamlike, with lots of famous episodes, like Lowry’s chats with his plastic surgery addict of a mother (Katherine Helmond). That image of her stretched-out face is one of the most enduring in the film; it feels emblematic of the whole because as her face is distorted, the movie continuously distorts itself, with sagging piles of ductwork, endless government hallways, and Gilliam’s signature wide-angle lenses.
The movie then even satirizes and undermines the stock turns in dystopian-future stories. When protesting his admittance into the Information Retrieval office without an ID, Lowry says, “I could be anybody,” and is met with a sedated reply from the government official: “No you couldn’t, sir.” In other films, Lowry’s line might be taken as a declaration of everyman status—or the government’s reply could be taken as a cue that Lowry is an extraordinary individual in a sea of conformity. Gilliam twists both meanings back on themselves: Lowry is an individual, but he is alone, and not particularly special.
These twists and absurdities are sometimes brilliant; they can also be, it must be said, exhausting. Gilliam is aware of the effect: in the Criterion commentary track on his director’s cut, he admits that the movie can be “relentless” in “knocking audiences around.” But he believes this overload comes from experience. For the film, he says, he “invented nothing, [using] only things I’ve observed.”
It may be hyperbole that seems truer in hindsight, looking back on Brazil‘s journey to the screen, repeatedly characterized on the set as a “battle”. Within the first three minutes of Gilliam’s commentary, he’s discussed two variations over different cuts of the movie that have made their way to screenings, theatrical releases, countries, or television airings. The reasons behind the various cuts are detailed in the 1996 documentary “The Battle for Brazil,” hosted by film critic Jack Mathews. Back in 1985, Mathews interviewed both Gilliam and Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal as the two engaged in a very public spat about the future of the film. Universal executives asked Gilliam to cut his 140-minute film down to 125 minutes. Gilliam refused. Universal then held the film from release in the US as it hired outside editors to pull together a more “audience-friendly” 90-minute version. (Frankly, Sheinberg isn’t entirely wrong about the director’s cut of Brazil being overlong and difficult to follow, but the idea that the movie could work better if cut by 40 percent is equally misguided.)
The behind-the-scenes story is also quintessentially Gilliamesque—less for the parallels to Sam Lowry that Gilliam is apt to invoke, but because it chronicles a righteous (and somewhat self-righteous) fight between the renegade artist and the money guys—a fight that would replay, in smaller forms, throughout Gilliam’s career. This version has the triumphant bonus of Gilliam’s vision actually prevailing.
The Universal-authored cut is included here, as on the previous Criterion issues of the film, referred to as the “Love Conquers All” version because, according to Gilliam, this is what the alternate editors decided the movie’s theme was—or could be, with the proper handling. The cut is accompanied by commentary by “Brazil expert” David Morgan, who explains the many differences between the two versions in great detail.
Morgan is understandably disdainful over the straighter narrative line of this version, which attempts to excise whatever material does not serve the love story, which turns from tragic subplot into star-crossed Hollywood romance. But he seems to loves Brazil so much that he fails to see why anyone could possibly consider the movie rambling and overstuffed. For Morgan, the narrative thicket that can make Gilliam’s superior cut nonetheless feel overgrown and untamed—the fact that it takes Brazil 140 minutes to tell a relatively simple story—is absolutely vital, and any attempt to skip steps in its loop-heavy, dreamlike storytelling is a concession to baser instincts.
Nevertheless, the commentary on this version of the film is a merciless, if slightly single-minded, deconstruction of how shot, scoring, and editing choices—not just story points—can add up to a drastically different film from the same basic footage. Brazil is wonderfully, unavoidably Gilliamesque not just because of its superficial tropes, but because of its mad, personal too-muchness. A simpler Brazil would be easier to watch, but it wouldn’t be Terry Gilliam.