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Brazil (1985)

May 27th, 2008 · 3 Comments

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“Somewhere in the 20th century” a bomb – apparently planted by terrorists – explodes in a department store window. A clerical error at the Ministry of Information dispatches a team of stormtroopers to the wrong address, resulting in an innocent family man named Buttle being thrown into a sack. A bureaucrat presents Buttle’s wife with a receipt covering “certain financial obligations” for the arrest. When Department of Records manager Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) realizes the goof, it falls on his most trusted employee, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) to smooth the paperwork over.

Despite his boring job, Lowry rejects efforts by his well-connected mother (Katherine Helmond) – whose face undergoes perpetual plastic surgery – to accept a promotion. Lowry daydreams of flying through the clouds and rescuing a damsel in distress. He crosses paths with Buttle’s feisty neighbor, Jill Layton (Kim Greist) who’s being given the bureaucratic runaround trying to free Buttle. A splitting image of his fantasy woman, Lowry becomes obsessed with her.

A broken heating duct in Lowry’s apartment brings him face to face with a “freelance subversive” named Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro) who circumvents government contractors (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor) to conduct outlaw home maintenance in the night. Lowry discovers that Jill’s security file has been restricted and accepts a promotion to the Ministry of Information to find her. This draws the suspicion of his best friend, Jack Lint (Michael Palin), who interrogates suspected radicals. Lowry’s involvement with Jill quickly puts both his credit rating and his life in jeopardy.


Production history
With the year 1984 approaching, Terry Gilliam – director, animator and collaborator in Monty Python – had George Orwell and Federico Fellini and a project he was calling 1984 ½ on his mind. Sitting on a beach in the Welsh steel town of Port Talbot, “The sun was setting, and it was really quite beautiful. The contrast was extraordinary. I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in these strange Latin escapist songs like ‘Brazil.’ The music transported him somehow and made his world less grey.”

Gilliam wrote a screenplay about that guy toiling at the “Ministry of Information,” dreaming on the job and falling in love, but the director was having trouble getting his ideas on paper. Someone suggested he turn to Tom Stoppard for help. Intrigued with the prospect of putting his images to the playwright’s words, Stoppard was commissioned to write three drafts. Along with “making certain sense out of some of the things,” Stoppard introduced the idea of a clerical error changing “Tuttle” to “Buttle” and the government torturing an innocent man to death.

Gilliam then brought in Charles McKeown – a writer who had played multiple roles in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – to muddy Stoppard’s streamlined script. At the Cannes Film Festival, producer Arnon Milchan brokered a deal between two studios; Fox put up $6 million in financing for European distribution rights, and Universal pledged $9 million for rights in the U.S. Shooting commenced in November 1983 at Lee International Studios in Wembley, but what had been scheduled as a twenty-week schedule ultimately stretched into nine months. Gilliam brought the film in $1 million under budget by scrapping pages from his massive script.


Brazil opened in the U.K. and France in February 1985. Its running time was 142 minutes, but Fox permitted Gilliam’s vision to play without interference to audiences in Western Europe throughout the spring. When Universal got a look at the film in lieu of its release in the States, the studio voiced major concerns. Sid Sheinberg – president of Universal’s parent company, MCA – felt that Brazil had “brilliance in many portions of it,” but considered the box office potential of Gilliam’s vision “something close to zero.”

Sheinberg wanted the film’s commercial elements – its love story, its elaborate sets, the offbeat comedy – to be emphasized, and the areas of the film which were not conducive to mass entertainment – its virulent anti-authoritarian streak, Michael Kamen’s brooding score, a dark ending – to be excised. The studio held Gilliam to a contractual clause mandating a running time no longer than 125 minutes, but working with editor Julian Doyle, the director delivered a cut of 132 minutes, with its dark ending still intact.

Universal responded by yanking Brazil from its release calendar. Arnon Milchan and Gilliam initiated a guerilla marketing campaign, with the producer offering to pay travel expenses for U.S. critics to come to Canada to see the film. Gilliam took out a full page ad in Variety which plainly read, “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film Brazil? Terry Gilliam.” Word of mouth spread and in late November, Milchan screened the still unreleased film to members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. It was later voted Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay of the year.


Universal blinked, opening Gilliam’s 132-minute cut in two Los Angeles theaters on Christmas Day. Devoting limited advertising dollars and scant publicity, the film was never a box office hit, but received some of the most enthusiastic critical notices of the decade. Promoting Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas in 1998, Gilliam was asked what he’d learned from the experience. “If your name is going to go on something, then you’ve got to take responsibility for it. That’s why I fight for control. If my name is not going to be on it, screw it.”

Part of the stature of Brazil can be attributed to the behind-the-scenes intrigue – which Gilliam painted as the ultimate battle between the individual and the machine – but the film itself endures as a classic by being continually funny, occasionally unsettling, and ultimately profound. Gilliam accomplishes this and more, creating a world we’ve never seen in a movie before, cramming what seems like all the worst elements of the 20th century into one place and time. There’s no other film quite like it and one of the very best of the 1980s.

Certain scenes and characters tower over others – Jonathan Pryce tormented by Hoskins & O’Connor as they gradually gut his apartment is hilarious, while the plastic surgery bits come on broad – but this is the greatest movie ever made about the dehumanizing effects of office work. Both Michael Kamen’s manic musical score and the versions of “Brazil” used over the opening and closing credits – one romantic, the other haunting – are nothing short of magical. The same can be said of Gilliam’s droll wit and imaginative whimsy. This is his masterpiece.


Tim Dirks at Greatest Films summarizes, “This popular and compelling film with a large cult following is one of the most visually imaginative, breath-taking, eccentric films ever created, with incredible sets, dazzling inventiveness and production design (by Norman Garwood). The film is so visually dense that it takes several viewings to fully comprehend (i.e., the billboard slogans, the user-unfriendly technical gadgets, the unforgettable images, etc.).”

“At a certain point, perceptions change and something that once seemed radical and revelatory can become solemn and sentimental. This is what has happened here. Brazil is a nice little movie with a keen visual style and some interesting performances. But the surrounding harangue, the tempest in a British teacup is no longer warranted and frankly, holds a more enduring and important place in history than the film itself,” writes Bill Gibron at DVD Verdict.

Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Brazil is spectacular in its visual fantasy. Some people find its complete lack of restraint to be a problem, and there’s no question that it’s long and, at times, hard to follow. For some, the endless series of outlandish scenes and constant special effects might be simply too much … Could Gilliam have done this without all the excesses? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Ambiguous ending · Bathtub scene · Black comedy · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Interrogation · Man vs. machine

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // May 29, 2008 at 6:21 am

    I, of course, have little to add. Brazil is one of my favorite movies ever. I agree it’s Gilliam’s masterpiece, though he’s directed some good films since (I find Baron Munchausen underrated myself).

  • 2 christian // May 29, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    I agree that this is Gilliam’s masterpiece. Such visual imagination and emotional panache. And is Gilliam a master of miniature work or what?

  • 3 Joe Valdez // May 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    AR: I haven’t see The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in years. It seemed a little light-headed in comparison to Gilliam’s two previous films, but I recall the imagination was astounding. I need to watch it again. Thanks for commenting!

    Christian: Emotional panache. I like that! Gilliam made a comment alluding this being a favorite film among office workers and I’m inclined to see that.

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