‘Brazil With Monty Python’s Michael Palin’ Isn’t the Brazil You’re Thinking of

[23 June 2014]

By Brad Cook

Fans of classic Monty Python comic Terry Gilliam‘s excellent 1985 film Brazil might be confused by the headlines announcing the release of the Brazil with Monty Python’s Michael Palin BBC mini-series on DVD and Blu-ray, especially since fellow Python comic Palin also starred in that film. So, to clear up any confusion: Palin’s Brazil is a travelogue that has nothing to do with his fellow funnyman’s black comedy—although, after watching it, it occurred to me that there might be some connections lurking below the surface.

But first, the rundown of this series: Palin has done several travelogues during his post-Python career, releasing them as both TV series and books. Amongst his many works, a few stand out: he recreated Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, traveled from the North Pole to the South Pole by following the 30 degree line of longitude, and traced Ernest Hemingway’s travels, among many others.

However, as he says at the beginning of the first episode of this series, he has never set foot in Brazil, despite its meteoric rise to prominence in recent years. So he set out to rectify that mistake by devoting a series to the country that will host the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics. The series originally aired in 2012 and was accompanied by a book; this home video release was quite obviously timed to coincide with the World Cup.

The series is broken into four episodes that trace the country’s history from the first Portuguese explorers that settled it and brought in hundreds of thousands of African slaves to work their sugar and tobacco plantations. Those explorers arrived in the northeast of the country, so Palin begins his travels there and begins working his way down the coast, encountering Brazilian cowboys and exploring some beautiful coastal lagoons.

In subsequent episodes, he visits indigenous tribes whose way of life is threatened by a booming economy that is causing encroachment on their land. An anthropologist explains how their centuries-old rituals are in danger, but there seems to be a fatalistic attitude about the situation, as if that is the way it must be for Brazil to work its way toward superpower status.

As he explores the country, Palin encounters various prominent figures in Brazilian culture, visits many prominent locations, soaks in the life of the rich in Sao Paulo, and spends quite a bit of time in Rio de Janeiro, where the series takes a very serious turn in the third episode. Rio is known to many as the ultimate party city, but it is also home to a large drug trade and many violent gangs. The city’s policy of “pacification” is touched on, but the heavy-handed tactics that the police have been accused of in the past really don’t get dealt with.

There was also a recent Real Sports With Bryan Gumbel that dug into the amount of money Brazil is spending on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics, with accusations that the lavish stadiums they are building will likely never be used again, if one looks at the example set by other host countries. Admittedly, Palin made this series a couple years ago, but it would have been interesting if he had dug into that in addition to some of the accusations of police brutality that have been part of Brazil’s headlines for many years.

One can overlook these suggestions by saying that this is a feel-good series, one that should focus primarily on all the wonderful parts of Brazil and how it’s moving forward into the 21st century. However, it would make the film more substantial if more attention paid to such topics. Here one can make connections to Gilliam’s 1985 film, since it focuses quite a bit on the absurdity of the way authoritarian governments treat their people, and how they reduce their plans to paperwork and policies that in the end inflict nothing but pain on the populace.

Unfortunately, there are no bonus features on this disc, a disappointment since it would have been interesting to hear Palin talk about his post-Python career a bit, or maybe even dig into some of the recent controversy surrounding the World Cup.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/182930-brazil-with-monty-pythons-michael-palin/