While researching a book on the making of and the feud over the American release of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, I read nearly every review published in the U.S., and saw very few that failed to describe the story as “futuristic” or “Orwellian.” Most called it both.
The comparisons are understandable, if inaccurate. There isn’t a futuristic moment or element in Brazil. The story is Orwellian, in the sense that it is set in a totalitarian state where individuality is smothered by enforced conformity. But where George Orwell, writing in 1948, was envisioning a future ruled by fascism and technology, Gilliam was satirizing the bureaucratic, largely dysfunctional industrial world that had been driving him crazy all his life.
Gilliam, born in suburban Los Angeles eight years before the publication of Orwell’s 1984, was both an artist and a social rebel when he came of age in the mid-’60s. And his talent and political irreverence served him well, first as a cartoonist for Harvey Kurtzman’s New York-based Help! magazine, then as the illustrator for the London-based Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
As Gilliam’s career expanded, to include a codirecting assignment with Terry Jones on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and solos as director of Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, so did his horizons. After the success of Time Bandits, a movie rejected by every major studio, Gilliam declined an offer to direct Fox’s big-budget sci-fi adventure Enemy Mine, determined instead to make an antibureaucratic fantasy he called Brazil.
The inspiration for Brazil, as Gilliam explains in the supplement to this Criterion special edition, came from several intersecting ideas inside his head, all of them having to do with the craziness of our awkwardly ordered society and the desire to escape it through whatever means possible.
It’s the theme that links Gilliam’s “Dreams” trilogy. Time Bandits is the story of a boy escaping a troubled home life through fantastic trips in time. Brazil is the story of a young man escaping a totalitarian existence through flights of fancy and, ultimately, insanity. His subsequent The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the story of an old storyteller demonstrating to a young girl the value of magic in a world of violence.
Brazil is the least optimistic of Gilliam’s films, and the most personal. Sam Lowry, brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, is the flipside to Gilliam’s own personality. Sam is an unambitious, mid-level bureaucrat trying to stay out of trouble while being haunted by recurring dreams of a beautiful woman beckoning to him, and a metallic, flame-spouting samurai attempting to squash him. The woman represents hope, and the samurai the system. When Sam sees his dream girl’s likeness in the face of a woman he suspects of being a terrorist (Kim Griest), he recklessly pursues her and brings upon himself the wrath of the system.
Gilliam’s busy imagination is not to all tastes, and the kaleidoscope of images melding the real and unreal worlds of Brazil was seen as an assault on the senses by viewers who complained that the movie didn’t know where to end. In fairness to them, Brazil is a movie, like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, that needs to be seen over and over to be fully appreciated. Hollywood is not geared to marketing movies that demanding, and it was his determination to make Brazil more “accessible” that led MCA-Universal CEO Sidney J. Sheinberg to insist on major changes.
The months-long battle that ensued between the executive and the filmmakers over the release version of Brazil ended in December 1985, when the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, whose members had seen Gilliam’s final cut at a series of clandestine screenings, chose it as the year’s best picture, Gilliam as best director, and Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard as authors of the year’s best screenplay. Universal released the film two weeks later, and it received Oscar nominations for both its script and Norman Garwood’s stunning production design.
A decade later, Brazil is regarded by many critics, historians, filmmakers, and film buffs as one of the most original and influential movies of the past fifty years. “Brazil is the most potent piece of satiric political cinema since Dr. Strangelove,” wrote critic Kenneth Turan in California magazine. Best-selling fantasy author Harlan Ellison, writing in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, declared Brazil “the finest SF movie ever made.”
In a Time magazine piece celebrating Gilliam’s victory, critic Richard Corliss wrote: “A terrific movie has escaped the asylum without a lobotomy. The good guys, the few directors itching to make films away from the assembly line, won one for a change.”
This DVD special edition of Brazil includes Gilliam’s “final final cut,” which restores some of the scenes cut from the two-hour, 22-minute European version, plus Gilliam’s commentary, the complete “studio cut,” which was released for TV syndication, a detailed production history with illustrations and storyboards, an award-winning documentary on the making of the movie, and my own essay—with interviews—on the battle over its release.
Jack Mathews is the author of The Battle of "Brazil" (Crown) and film critic for Newsday.