Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic Brazil, a film about a man fighting against an oppressive system, led to life imitating art before its release as Gilliam fought with Universal Studios to get his version of the film released. That inside-Hollywood story is as interesting as the one on screen and the Criterion Collection tells them both in this two-disc set.
At 8:49 PM, somewhere in the 20th Century, an explosion goes off in a storefront window, an occurrence so frequent during these times people don’t stop eating during a restaurant bombing. In the Ministry of Information, a warrant for the arrest of Archibald Buttle is incorrectly issued alongside one for “terrorist” Archibald Tuttle. On Christmas Eve, Buttle is taken in for questioning but he doesn’t survive the latter process.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level employee in the massive Hall of Records. He claims to be content with his life, ignoring opportunities for advancement and marriage that his well-connected mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond), sets up. The former decision greatly delights his boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), an ineffectual manager who would be out of a job were it not for Sam constantly doing his work for him.
Yet, Sam is being dishonest, as his dreams of being a winged hero reveal. When he goes to Mrs. Buttle’s apartment to bring her a reimbursement check due to being overcharged for her husband’s retrieval, he discovers her neighbor, Jill (Kim Griest), is literally the woman of his dreams. In order to learn more about her, he finally accepts a promotion to Information Retrieval. While there, he discovers Jill’s attempts to resolve the error made in the taking of Mr. Buttle on behalf of his family are not looked upon favorably by the Ministry.
Sam bucks bureaucracy again when his air conditioning unit goes out one night. His call for help to Central Services reaches a recording, yet Tuttle (Robert De Niro) intercepts it and provides some illegal maintenance. When Central Services workers, Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and Dowser (Derrick O’Connor), do show up, Sam asks if they have the proper paperwork, causing them to leave until they get it, to which they don’t take kindly.
As the story progresses, Sam strives to be the hero he always dreamed of, one who saves the girl and defeats the villain, but can he overthrow the system after it designates him an enemy? The answer, according to Gilliam and his co-screenwriters Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard, fits the theme of this mad wonderland they have created and is very satisfying. The executives at the studio disagreed and held up the release, but Gilliam took his fight to the press and forced the studio’s hand to give into his vision of the film.
Brazil might be Gilliam’s best-looking film, in terms of cinematography and production design. It’s a drab, depressing world and the color palette reflects that. The technology is a combination of both old and new, making it seem like it takes place in a parallel dimension rather than our past or future. The rooms are filled with gadgets and ducts, adding to the claustrophobic feel. The miniature work is impressive as well, used most notably during Tuttle’s departures from Sam’s apartment.
The film has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. “Approved by director Terry Gilliam, this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a new 35mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction,” as stated in the booklet.
The color palette uses a lot of grays and muted colors. Even the primary colors, aren’t very bright. Blacks lighten at times. Grain is evident throughout and increases during the dream sequence, which seems to have been shot with a hazier look. The print shows its age with a lot of black flecks. The wide shots show a lot of soft focus on the edges, such as when Sam goes to see his mother while she is getting face work.
The audio is available as DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and is more than adequate for the demands of the film. The dialogue is clear and the music rings out with good dynamics. The guns and explosions vary in expected loudness and don’t always deliver great oomph or low end. There was no noticeable hiss or wear.
Criterion really wows with the features even though they are ported over from the DVD release. Recorded in 1996, Terry Gilliam delivers the commentary track on this Director’s Cut or what he calls “the fifth and final version” of the film. It’s quite marvelous listening to him tell stories about what it took to bring Brazil to the screen, especially for fans of the film when he talks about ideas not realized.
Made by Rob Hedden, “What is Brazil?” (1080i, 29 min) was shot during production and is filled with interviews of the cast and crew as they try to explain it. Most interesting is a scene with a field of eyeballs that was cut.
The Production Notebook: Criterion along with Brazil expert (how does one get that designation?) David Morgan created a series of featurettes about elements of the preproduction and production. The screenwriters (1080i, 11 min) get their say. Eight storyboard sequences (HD, 21 min) that were drawn by Gillian but not filmed have been animated and include narration by Morgan. There are visual essay by Morgan about the design (HD, 22 min) and special effects (HD, 10 min). The costume work of three-time Oscar winner James Acheson (HD, 7 min) and a look at the score (1080i, 10 min) with Gilliam and Michael Kamen, who was initially against the song, round out the set.
Based on Jack Mathew’s book of the same name, “The Battle of Brazil: A Video History” (1080i, 55 min) includes both sides of this fascinating story. It’s good to hear the executives’ position in their own words. Considering an agreed-upon, 132-minute version fared poorly at the box office, their concerns weren’t without merit. However, “Brazil: The “Love Conquers All” (1080i, 94 min), which was shown in syndication, shows they had no idea what they had, either. This version tells a completely different story. It alters who the characters are, loses quite a bit of the personality and humor of the world, and numerous plot points are lost. Even worse is the ending, which misses the point altogether.
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is an outstanding film, as is this release of it by Criterion. Together, they show some times the little guy wins and some times he loses. Highly recommend.