DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)

Criterion's latest version presents the director's widescreen 142-minute cut in either a 1-disc or 3-disc package

Published on September 11, 2006

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Kim Greist
Studio: Universal/Criterion Collection (3 DVDs)
Video: 1.78:1 widescreen for 16:9 display, color
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround 2.0, English
Subtitles; English for the deaf
Extras: Commentary by Terry Gilliam, Essay by Jack Mathews, Documentary “What is Brazil?” (30 min.), Exposé on “The Battle of Brazil” (On the battle over the film’s U.S. release), Theatrical trailer, Video interviews with the production team, Raw and behind-the-scenes footage, Hundreds of storyboards, drawings, publicity and production stills, The Hollywood-demanded “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil (94 min.) with changes Gilliam refused to make, Audio essay by journalist David Morgan
Length: 142 minutes
Rating: *****

First some background on this review: Brazil is my favorite movie, so keep that in mind. Second, I’m reviewing only the single-disc version just issued by Criterion, because that’s all that was furnished.  My comments on the extras come from owning the original Criterion laserdisc package (5 discs!) which was issued in 1996.  I am presuming the extras on the DVDs are the same (Gilliam even speaks during his continuous commentary track, on the single disc, of revealing things about the production for the first time “on this laserdisc.”)  Lastly, I am completely confused to read comments online about this new DVD set replacing a Criterion 3-DVD set released in 1999 which was not anamorphic. Surely pan & scan is not meant by that, because Criterion would never issue a film available in widescreen form as only pan & scan.  That surprises me since the laserdisc set is widescreen letterboxed. Then there is the discrepancy of the original widescreen aspect ratio: The laserdisc claims to be a pristine digital transfer of the original Academy Flat Format 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  Yet the new DVD set is identified as 1.78:1 aspect ratio anamorphically-enhanced for 16:9 displays. I don’t use the phrase anamorphic due to confusions it can cause, but 1.78:1 is the exact ratio of 16:9 screens – that was the “happy medium” ratio chosen when the parameters of widescreen HDTV were set up – between 4:3 and 1.66:1 on the squarish side and up to 2.40:1 on the super widescreen end. Therefore no “enhancement for 16:9″ should be required. (Yet I see that on many 1.78:1 DVDs.) But if the original size is 1.85:1 there must be either a bit of cropping of the sides of the image or slight letterboxing with black borders above and below on the 16:9 screen. These do not appear with the new DVD.

OK, the story is a cynical retro-futurist sci-fi fantasy of an alternate world which incorporates designs, fashions and technologies from the 1920s thru the 1960s. (But you don’t have to be a sci-fan fan to dig it.) In its repressive fascist society the slogan is “The truth shall make you free,” when in reality truth is the regime’s nemesis. Civilian clothing seems stuck in the 1940s and the military outfits are Italian fascist and Nazi-inspired.  Efficiency and organization seem to be the focus of the bureaucracy, when actually things are failing everywhere. Director Terry Gilliam reveals on the commentary track a few of the wide-ranging influences he had in mind in the wild mishmash of technologies and designs used in Brazil. Just a few of them: the sci-fi classic Metropolis, Casablanca, Fellini films, samurai movies, blatant advertising and consumerism, odd fashions such as shoe hats.

One of the pervasive gadgets is a sort of combination typewriter/computer/ teletype/TV monitor which Gilliam had the prop department create using some old teletype parts, plus a tiny B&W screen with a huge magnifier over it – something like early adopters of small home TVs were prone to do.  He also lays heavy satirical chops on a number of things which bug him, including expensive restaurants with awful food, putting a happy face and demeanor on things which are inhuman and terrible, and plastic surgery.  The last is a running gag with his mother, who is obsessed with trying to look younger and younger. Another running gag is ducts: in fact the first sentence heard in the film is “I want to talk to you about ducts.” Multifold, ugly ducts snake thru every building (except for Sam’s “ultramodern” apartment, which has them hidden behind wall paneling). They symbolize rampant consumerism, bringing in the things people want, not caring how they look.  The Rube Goldberg-like gadgets in the main character’s apartment are mad combinations of simple technologies trying to achieve robot-like efficiency but all failing miserably. Even the telephone requires a series of phone cables to be manually plugged into a small jack panel before it will even receive or make a call.

The opening scenes depict an error occurring in the vast Ministry of Information (their focus is on “Information Retrieval”) network devoted to tracking down any revolutionaries who oppose the iron rule of the brutal but smiling regime.  A clerk squashes a bug harassing him, and it falls into one of the teletype gadgets as it is printing out an order for the arrest of a notorious revolutionary (played by Robert DeNiro) named Tuttle. As a result, the machine prints out Buttle instead of Tuttle, and an innocent man’s apartment is suddenly invaded by storm troopers and he is brutally taken away and destroyed. Sam Lowry (Pryce) is a nebbishy clerk in the Ministry bureaucracy who escapes from his boring job in dreams of flying around in the clouds rescuing a beautiful woman, to the strains of the tune Brazil. (Otherwise, as you probably figured by now, the film has absolutely nothing to do with Brazil…) He learns of a refund check which the system has spit out (probably erroneously) concerning charges which the Ministry collects from its victims for their imprisonment and torture. He finds that Buttle’s widow has no bank account into which to deposit the check, so he makes a trip (in his single-seat, 3-wheeled Messerschmidt) to deliver it to her in person. He also meets the second revolutionary, who happens to live in the apartment just above the Buttles.  According to Gilliam, he had Annie Lennox in mind when casting the female lead (played by Kim Greist), who happens to be a crewcut version of the fantasy woman in Sam flying dreams. Sam’s mother, who is a plastic surgery addict, is played to the hilt by Katherine Helmond.

In trying to correct the error the system made he learns of the revolutionary activities of not only Tuttle – who appears suddenly at his apartment to correct the disaster the official ministry repair oafs create (twice) trying to repair his ductwork which wasn’t working – but also of the woman. She works as a truck driver and places bombs here and there against the Ministry. Sam gets in deeper and deeper until he is apprehended by the storm troopers and tries to escape with the woman. It becomes obvious that one or two people cannot overcome the fascist regime and that things will end badly for Sam.

Gilliam reveals in his commentary track that he probably wouldn’t make such a thoroughly cynical (though sporadically hilarious) film today – that he has a lot of things then he wanted to get off his chest. But in some ways his parable seems more pertinent now than it did in 1985.  He had help on the screenplay from both Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown; their work perfectly complemented the off-kilter satirical stance of Gilliam – who after all had been both the cockeyed animator and only American member of Monty Python.

The major item in the extras – which are parceled out on all three of the DVDs in the 3-disc package – is the brutally edited 94-minute “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil which Universal wanted Gilliam to release and which he refused, leading to all sorts of legal hassles. “The Battle of Brazil” is Criterion’s own documentary on the controversy over the film’s release, and the 30-minute “What Is Brazil?” also deals with the revolutionary air about the entire production, and includes Gilliam plus Pryce, Palin and other two screenplay writers. There is a sort of briefly-convincing happy ending in Gilliam’s 142-minute directors’ cut, but it is shown to be more of Sam’s fantasy.  The Hollywood version makes Sam’s escape from torture at the hands of his supposed friend (played by Michael Palin of Monty Python) completely successful and ruins most of the sense of the film with its other gross cuts.

There are extra featurettes on the unique designs used in Brazil, storyboards on the dream sequences, a study of some of the special effects, a piece with the film’s costume designer, interviews with the production people, and behind-the-scenes footage. The transfer of both versions of the film is up to the usual Criterion standards.  Artifacts such as overmuch edge enhancement are minimal, and dark portions of the image – a frequent occurrence – have a tremendous amount of detail in them. Of course the picture quality is 100% better than on the laserdiscs of a decade ago – more resolution, better color saturation, more accurate flesh tones.  And the sound is unchanged in format but is cleaner and crisper on the DVD. I was surprised the Dolby soundtrack was not remixed to discrete 5.1 surround instead of matrix Dolby Surround, but using the “movie” setting in ProLogic II provided a very good surround field in some of the film’s appropriate environments – such as the seemingly endless hallways with a gaggle of clerks speedily following an executive around. This is a perfect film to own, since it merits multiple viewings to catch the cornucopia of rapid or subtle visual and audio gems with which it abounds.  I find it on a similar plane in this regard with films such as Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai and Apocalypse Now.

 - John Sunier




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