Terry Gilliam stands with the greatest of film fantasists, and Brazil is unquestionably his masterpiece. The ongoing popularity of this amazing movie speaks for itself. Its story glides effortlessly from knockabout comedy and political satire to dreamy romance, rambunctious fantasy, and dystopian science fiction. Its verbal and visual wit remain as incisive as ever, and the themes it explores—social alienation, terrorism, the hazards of high technology, and the bureaucratization of absolutely everything—are more urgent now than when the film premiered in 1985. One of the few things it doesn’t have is anything to do with Brazil, apart from its theme song. Brazil figures here the way Chinatown does in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film: it’s a shadowy somewhere else that haunts the imagination without intruding much on the characters’ world.
Set in the not-so-distant future, the tale takes place in an unnamed city where nothing works right and terrorist bombings are an everyday nuisance. Our hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), an ordinary guy who’s determined to stay ordinary, dreading the day when someone will try to promote him above his humdrum job in the Department of Records, one of the many government agencies that rule every aspect of society. Sam’s only escape from the dullness of his life comes in his dreams, where he’s a winged superhero battling forces of darkness and saving a lovely woman in distress. At Sam’s work one day, a bug gets squished in a computer, causing a name to be misprinted—Tuttle comes out as Buttle—and an innocent man to be arrested, tortured, and killed. Visiting the man’s bewildered widow, Sam spots the girl of (literally) his dreams, living in the apartment overhead. Her name is Jill Layton (Kim Greist), and before long, both she and Sam are on the run as suspected terrorists, thanks to their accidental links to the late Archibald Buttle.
Those events are exciting and suspenseful, but what really propels the story is . . . air-conditioning! Setting after setting in Brazil is crisscrossed, congested, or positively clogged with ventilation ducts, each one a serpentine absurdity—if there were a Monty Python, he might look like one of these—forever prone to breaking down. The actual Tuttle (Robert De Niro) is a guerrilla repairman who swings into action from the sky, fixes things without endless paperwork or pointless licenses, and disappears as suddenly as he arrived. Naturally, the Ministry of Information considers him a terrorist, and Sam is in big trouble when the officially approved repairmen, Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and Dowser (Derrick O’Connor), find out that someone else has been making his overheated home more habitable. Such are the low-tech realities of this supposedly high-tech society.
Others involved in the marvelously acted story are Sam’s mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond), a plastic surgery addict; Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent), her overeager physician; Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), the timid head of Sam’s department; Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), the pompous Ministry of Information chief; and the ever-smiling Jack Lint, a government interrogator played by Michael Palin, one of Gilliam’s gifted colleagues in the Monty Python troupe. Jack is Sam’s best friend, until Sam ends up in his interrogation chamber, sparking the film’s conclusion, which is so artistically ingenious and emotionally wrenching that it must be seen to be believed. There’s nothing else quite like it in world cinema.
For an auteur with a truly unique imagination, Gilliam is famously collaborative in his methods. After drafting the screenplay for Brazil, he brought in Tom Stoppard, whose credits include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, knowing that the playwright’s gift for language would complement his own gift for imagery; further contributions to the script came from Charles McKeown, who also gives an uproarious performance as Harvey Lime, the drudge who shares Sam’s office desk. On all his films, Gilliam likes everyone in the crew to work on every aspect of the production—costume ideas from the set designer, script ideas from the art director, and so on. And somehow the result bears Gilliam’s inimitable imprint, steeped in the humor, mystery, danger, and perceptiveness that stretch from Time Bandits (1981) to Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and beyond.
With so much brilliance in its favor, it’s jolting to recall that Brazil was almost suppressed by its American distributor. Deeming it overlong, confusing, and downbeat—especially the finale, which exposes Hollywood’s happy-ending tradition as the intelligence-insulting farce it often is—Universal seized control of the final cut from Gilliam, whose version exceeded the contractual running time by a few minutes. The studio then chopped Gilliam’s 142-minute cut down to a meager 94 minutes, complete with a sentimental conclusion that blew the film’s razor-sharp satire to smithereens.
Proclaiming that “love conquers all” was not the message he’d had in mind, Gilliam declared war, buoyed by the knowledge that his own version was pleasing audiences in Europe, where another studio had successfully released it. He engineered some private screenings in the U.S., over Universal’s objections, and in December of 1985, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association made the unprecedented move of giving its top honors—best picture, best director, and best screenplay of the year—to a picture that had never been publicly shown. Obviously beaten, Universal finally released a 132-minute compromise cut in theaters. Ticket sales weren’t spectacular, recouping only about a third of the production’s cost, but the picture quickly built a large and loyal following, with Gilliam’s European cut becoming the cut to see. (What’s presented here is that version with some fine-tuning by the director—now known informally as Terry’s Final Cut.)
Gilliam drew enormous dividends from his modest fifteen-million-dollar budget, often using his trademark wide-angle lenses to stretch small, claustrophobic spaces into large, intimidating ones. A tracking shot down a seemingly endless corridor in the Department of Records is a logistical wonder created by moving the camera twice through a single passageway, with precisely choreographed actors swarming just inches away from the lens. This was filmed in an abandoned Victorian flour mill still containing its obsolete wooden machinery, refinished by the crew to get the ungainly mix of newfangled ugliness and oldfangled inefficiency that characterizes the picture’s look.
Gilliam used the same old mill for the exterior of the wildly misnamed Shangri-La Towers, where Jill and the Buttles live. The billiards room of London’s National Liberal Club doubles as Ida’s posh apartment; a Knightsbridge disco serves as a chapel; the streets of Sam’s neighborhood were filmed in a modernistic Paris suburb; and Dr. Jaffe operates in the Arab Hall of a nineteenth-century English mansion. Most strikingly of all, Gilliam built the sinister interrogation room in the cooling tower of a decommissioned nuclear power plant, requiring Sam’s rescuers to rappel 250 feet and land on slender metal strips thirty feet above the floor. Equally incomparable sets were constructed from scratch on soundstages.
The visual-effects team also faced big challenges. Richard Conway had worked on previous Gilliam projects—Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983; cowritten but not directed by Gilliam)—and knew what he was in for. George Gibbs, also a Meaning of Life veteran, had just shared an Academy Award for effects in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and when he saw the script for Brazil, he immediately said it would be harder! Remarkably, the special effects were mostly done “in camera,” filmed on a stage with no further optical work. A good example is Sam’s dream about enormous monoliths violently erupting from the ground—a fearsome sight created by filming miniatures over and over in meticulously timed slow motion.
Other memorable images arise from the ever-present gizmos. The preposterous Probeoscope that guards the Ministry of Information is a me´lange of lamps, valves, radio parts, telescopic arms, and dental equipment, while the giant samurai warrior who troubles Sam’s dreams is both an ancient archetype and a postmodern pastiche made of cobbled-together computer parts. The movie’s crowning touch is its musical leitmotif: Ary Barroso’s 1939 song “Aquarela do Brasil,” sung by Geoff Muldaur and reprised so often in the score that composer Michael Kamen said he started to think he might have written it himself.
At the core of the film’s social critique is Gilliam’s insistence that contemporary culture is enslaved by its technologies, which waste more time and resources than they save. The government in Brazil makes things even worse, aiming at total control but achieving zero due to stupidity and incompetence at every level. Look at the computer and television screens, for example—instead of nice big monitors, everyone has cramped little ones clumsily magnified by additional screens in front of them—or at Sam’s telephone, a muddled knot of plugs and wires more like an archaic switchboard than a sleek electronic device. The powers that be—or Central Services, in the government’s deceptively bland jargon—do everything the convoluted way, nothing the obvious way. Horrible explosions recur throughout the story, but despite the government’s constant claims that terrorists are to blame, it’s possible there are no terrorists, just a lot of lethal accidents caused by bungling authorities. This richly ironic idea–that the guardians of civic order are the worst enemies of civic order—resounds throughout the film.
Brazil is as zany and hilarious as the greatest screen comedies, but it’s also as serious and cautionary as two classic dystopian satires to which it bears a family resemblance: Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), still the most blood-chilling tale of humanity crushed by bureaucratic overkill, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which anticipates the official malice and malpractice so ubiquitous in Brazil, even though Gilliam says he never read it. The sociopolitical message of Brazil is woven into every aspect of its pullulating tapestry. When he first enters his tiny office, for instance, Sam finds that his desk extends through the wall into the next office, forcing him to play tug-of-war with the neighboring clerk for his proper share of desktop—a terrific sight gag, and also a sardonic commentary on the way capitalist culture turns trifling items into ruthlessly contested symbols of status and prestige. To infuse the inescapable bureaucracy into the film’s smallest details, Gilliam went so far as to print innumerable forms, dossiers, certificates, and pieces of stationery emblazoned with official stamps and signatures, right down to documents informing arrested persons how and when their families will be billed for the expense of arresting, jailing, and/or executing them. Propaganda posters (“Don’t Suspect a Friend--Report Him”) and advertisements (“Mellowfields—Top Security Holiday Camps—Relax in a Panic-Free Atmosphere”) are ubiquitous as well.
I first saw Brazil at one of the under-the-counter screenings Gilliam set up during the distribution tussle, and although I’ve watched it many times since, I never fail to be surprised, delighted, and moved by scenes that grow ever more pungent and evocative. The film’s visionary nature is all the more evident when you remember that it hails from the middle 1980s, when science fiction and fantasy were tending toward escapist blockbusters like Ghostbusters (1984), Back to the Future (1985), and the latest Star Wars and Indiana Jones installments. Brazil has set a high bar for fantasy, science fiction, and social satire ever since, and you can see its influence in everything from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991) to Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s The City of Lost Children (1995) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), not to mention the retro-futuristic aesthetics of the “steampunk” design movement. But Brazil stands alone, depicting a society that’s as thrillingly outlandish—and eerily familiar—as any the screen has given us. Rarely has such a badly bungled world been such a breathtaking place to visit.
David Sterritt, chair of the National Society of Film Critics, is chief book critic of Film Quarterly and a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. His writing on Terry Gilliam has appeared in Cineaste, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere, and his books include Terry Gilliam: Interviews, coedited with Lucille Rhodes.