DVD Review Of Brazil

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/3/10


  When I set out to review The Criterion Collection’s 3 disk version of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil, I decided to watch the bowdlerized 94 minute studio cut of the film- the Love Conquers All version- first; then watch the longer 142 minute Director’s Cut by Gilliam. I did so that I would have a base to evaluate the ‘additions’ to the film, rather than watch the pair of films in reverse, then have to evaluate the impact of the losses. And I’m glad I did because, while the bowdlerized version was good (in fact, much better than Gilliam or its detractors claim), the Final Cut by Gilliam is definitively superior, and also a great film. And, in a world lacking Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, Brazil could arguably be held up as the best political satire ever filmed. Yet, it never ceases to amuse me how wrong most takes on films such as this are. Bandied about are terms such as futuristic or science fiction when the film is not in the least bit futuristic- in fact it’s more retro than futuristic, and there is nothing in the film that is science fiction. Fantasy? Yes. Sci fi? No. And, the fact that the film is so very good in all its facets bolsters the idea that this is Gilliam’s masterpiece, since nothing before or since has come close to equaling it. In a sense, this film is akin to the sports star who is a solid player who puts together one great season for the ages and never comes close to replicating it.

  The film’s acting, writing, visuals, and witticisms are pitch perfect. Perhaps the only let down might be the special effects that seem to be deliberately antiquated in look. Of course, in a sense, even this might be a tribute to Gilliam’s stylization, to say to the viewer that ‘It’s only a movie;’ and if so, it also works. This film establishes that Gilliam is not just a comedian nor former Monty Pythoner, but also a director with talent and a sense of what he wants to say, married to an ability to say it well. And, this is so, even if one knows little about the film’s hectic struggles to get to the public unsliced and undiced by studio empty suits (which is chronicled in excruciating detail in several spots within the DVD package.

  Regardless, tally ho to the film’s wherefores. Brazil follows the peregrinations of a man named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who is a gray functionary cog in the nameless government of a nameless, presumably Western, nation ‘somewhere in the 20th Century.’ He longs to escape his life and engages in mock heroic fantasies, one that includes his ‘dream girl’- played by Kim Greist, who turns out to be the upstairs neighbor of a man who is wrongly kidnapped and killed by the government ministry Sam works for. The film follows his pursuit of Jill Layton (Greist), her pursuit of justice for the wrong man, and he possible connections to a claimed terrorist cell headed by a man with a similar name to the man wrongly kidnapped and killed by the government. That man is Archibald ‘Harry’ Tuttle (Robert De Niro)- a renegade repairman whose very delight in helping the ‘little man’ seems to incur the ire of the bumbling government. Along the way we see Sam struggle with his relationship with his plastic surgery-addicted mother (Katherine Helmond) and his long time friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin), who just happens to be the government’s main Torquemada. In the 94 minute bowdlerized version, Sam and Jill end up defeating the government, due to Tuttle’s help, and move out into the country to live happily ever after. As it is, this is not a bad ending- a bit predictable, but certainly not bad, primarily because Gilliam has so well sketched his characters that the audience naturally roots for them, despite sensing how the film will end: one pulls for Jill and Sam to ‘make it.’ But, this also makes the film almost impossible to be great. As such, it a 75-80 on a scale of 100. That being said, would that today’s Hollywood mega-blockbusters could fail so well.

  The same does not hold true for the Final Cut version, for it makes lush the interior life of Sam, and deepens the characterizations of all involved, and puts Sam’s ‘rescue,’ after he and Jill are captured, into its proper context- i.e.- it’s a dream. And, what Gilliam does really well is not telegraph the ending is definitely a dream until the absolutely final scene. Thus, it’s power is heightened by its revelation, even as hints are dropped along the way. Tuttle and his terrorist buddies are phantoms, wisps of Sam’s deranging mind, possibly forever lost after his pal, Jack, is summoned to torture him. This version of the film ends up with Jill dead- killed by the government as a terrorist; Tuttle either neutralized or unable to help Sam, and Sam lost inside his mind. It’s both a more realistic ending, and one more apt for a dystopia. This is the rare film(s) that I am loath to detail the plot of, because I want the reader to truly engage this film and ‘experience’ the effect of what editing can do to a film, and to do so I must simply limn, not detail the tale(s). In short, the non-Gilliam film is a series of often brilliant sketches that sometimes do not bridge into each other well. The Gilliam versions, however, is seamless, and welds the skits together, making them more: integrated scenes that reveal a deeper meaning, for the scenes are taut, revelatory, and more than just satire. The ‘seduction’ scene in Jill’s truck and the scenes of them arguing and fighting in the mall are the best examples of scenes which, in the hands of a lesser director, would have been played simply for laughs. In Gilliam’s hands they reveal much about Sam, Jill, and the potentiality of the couple they could be. And this all builds characterization- the foundation of narrative. Plot is merely mechanics. Characterization is the fuel narrative engines run on. And characterization is not built upon mere details, but observations, and Brazil is chock with moments of the main characters observing each other, themselves, and their worlds, and it is this drawing in to their shoes that sets Brazil apart from many other dystopian works, as well as many other satires. As such, the ‘additions’ to the Final Cut are almost all positives. This is not like the additions to Apocalypse Now, which add as much as they detract. This DVD set is a valuable lesson in the power of the film editor over the vision of another artist.

  Critics (such as the film’s most famed detractor- Roger Ebert, whose only point worth noting is his likening the film to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times) have often compared it to George Orwell’s 1984, but, naturally, this is a rather facile comparison, and made mostly because of the plethora of insipidly quotable state sponsored apothegms, like ‘Don’t suspect a friend- report him,’ ‘Be alert- some terrorists look normal,’ and ‘Suspicion breeds confidence.’ The state that Sam lives in, in the film, is rather inept (witness the ease with which the rather bumbling Tuttle thwarts the authorities at almost every stage). Sam fails not because the state overpowers him, like Winston Smith to the Oceania authorities in 1984, but because his bumbling and idiocy is even more pathetic than the state’s. In effect, Sam fails because he’s even more inept and personally weak than the system that subjugates him- he wins the devolutionary race to the bottom (is a Lowest Common Denominator society the cause or result of its citizens?). This is especially true in contrast to De Niro’s Tuttle; which augurs well for the citizens of their inept state; whereas the residents of the dismal Orwellian Oceania are doomed.

  The DVD package comes in three disks. Disk One has the Final Cut, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as well as an audio commentary by director Gilliam. It is lucid, passionate, engaging, and truly a delight. Rare is the filmmaker, outside of Werner Herzog, who seems engaged by discussing both his film, its circumstances, and its art. Gilliam also dispels the myth that the film was named after the title song, Aquarela Do Brasil; instead claiming the title was gotten first (after a dream Gilliam had of the film’s opening in a rain forest about to be techno-plundered) and the song added afterwards. It’s interesting that in the few dozen reviews I looked at of this film, not a single critic gives the correct provenance for the film’s title- even after claiming to have reviewed the DVD. The transfer is very good, and Gilliam gives so much engaging information that it almost makes the special features on Disk Two seem persiflage by comparison. That disk has two excellent documentaries- a contemporaneous 30 minute long What is Brazil? film that serves as a de facto Making Of featurette, and a 60 minute film, called The Battle Of Brazil, that details the film’s struggles against its studio, Universal, and its idiotic empty suits, as well as a piece of grandstanding by the Los Angeles Film Critics Society (of which host and film critic Jack Mathews was part of), which chose Brazil as best film of the year to force the studio to release the full version. Other features include the theatrical trailer, storyboards and assorted crew recollections and discussions of the film. Disk Three has the bowdlerized 94 minute version, and a commentary by David Morgan- a film expert on the works and career of Gilliam. While he is dutiful in pointing out when and where the two films diverge, Morgan is rather useless in discussing other aspects of the film, like some of the moments that are unaffected by the changes, and a few actual improvements- such as the substitution of a few close-ups for long shots, or certain angles the camera shoots at, which give a deeper ‘in’ to the ‘moment.’ His high point is catching the biggest error Gilliam’s bowdlerizers made- leaving in the ‘dream sequence’ shot of Tuttle getting devoured by windblown newspapers. In the longer version we see this as one of the first hints that Sam’s ‘escape’ from captivity is not real. But, in this version, where the escape is ‘real,’ Tuttle’s demise is more than incongruous, it’s an actual thumb in the eye. He follows that up by ending his commentary asking which of the two films is the more subversive- the bowdlerized cut which suggests that power can be subverted, or the final cut which shows the only ‘escape’ from authoritarianism is death or insanity?

  As for the film itself, there is no great nor memorable camera work to speak of- the odd angles Gilliam uses are all rather standard fare from his Python days, for this film is almost wholly dependent upon the great screenplay by Gilliam, playwright Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown, as well as some truly outstanding (and subtle) comic acting by the stars and supporting cast, which included Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughan, and Jim Broadbent. And, when I say ‘acting,’ I truly mean it. This is acting not built on melodramatic high points, but on often fleeting moments of sardonism where the turn of an eye, or the tic in a face can convey something, both from the main and supporting cast. Pryce, as example, was relatively unknown before this film, while De Niro was in his post-Taxi Driver-Raging Bull heyday as ‘the greatest actor in the world,’ yet it is Pryce’s acting that dominates the film, whereas De Niro’s is a supporting role in all measures of the term.

  Brazil is a theatrical film that is unique. Despite constant and wrongheaded comparisons to other dystopias, it is a film that clearly inspired later filmmakers- most notably Canada’s Guy Maddin. But, it also clearly had an inspiration few have noticed- the classic 1967 British television series, The Prisoner. Both works essentially end with the destruction of the individual (even if The Prisoner’s lead character ‘escapes’- he still is destroyed for he is revealed as the villain) in response to modern society. The only essential difference is that more inept and cowardly Sam Lowry never quite realizes he’s a prisoner in The Village (or perhaps does, but refuses his reality, thereby deepening his pathos). All in all, The Criterion Collection’s DVD set of the film is equal to the film it presents, and that is something all cinemaphiles can celebrate. Get to it!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Culture Vulture website.]


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