I thought I'd written this post before, some time ago, since Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite living directors. He's not the most consistent auteur, and has suffered some extraordinary bad luck over the years. However, his output contains several titles that I consider essential cinema. Unlike most fans, I didn't comes to his work from "Monty Python," but from his later urban fantasy films. I was especially intrigued by his love/hate relationship with Hollywood, particularly the legendary battle he waged against Sid Sheinberg, the president of Universal, for the heart and soul of "Brazil."
"Brazil" is a spoof on dystopian stories that once had the working title "1984 & 1/2." Our hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a small cog in the nightmare bureaucracy that controls his drab society. He has fanciful dreams of being a heroic winged figure, the savior of a beautiful captive woman. During Sam's investigation into a fatal paperwork mistake, he comes across Jill (Kim Griest), a free spirit who looks exactly like the woman from his dreams. Sam spends the rest of the film trying to find her, while having run-ins with the renegade air-conditioner repairman Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), Sam's plastic surgery obsessed mother Ida (Katherine Helmond), and various figures from the bureaucracy, including characters played by Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Ian Richardson, and an evil Michael Palin. The title of the film comes from the song "Aquarela do Brasil," which Sam hears on the radio, and then recurs throughout the score, signaling when his mind is drifting into flights of fancy.
The art design and effects work of "Brazil" is what most people remember about it. Gilliam is known for his detailed, spectacular fantasy creations, and here he builds a whole nightmare city of modern inconvenience. Scale plays a huge party in the impact of the visuals - the endless rows of gray bureaucrats in the dimly lit Ministry, the torture chamber located in the cavernous cooling tower, and highways entirely bordered by endless billboards stretching out to the horizon. There are distinct Art Deco influences, and retro-futurist concepts of what 1984 might have looked like in the mind of someone from the 1930s or 40s. Models and matte paintings are used extensively and contribute immeasurably to the film's handmade, careworn feel. Everything is falling into disrepair, mired in neverending Kafkaesque red tape and paperwork.
By contrast, "Brazil" also offers its scenes of unbridled whimsy and delight. The gorgeous flying sequences remain some of the best things that Terry Gilliam has ever done, and are frequently pointed to as some of the best effects ever achieved with miniatures and blue screen. There is a neon samurai villain, a floating woman that appears to be dressed in clouds, and a man that disappears in a storm of fallen papers. Federico Fellini's work was a major influence on Gilliam, and perhaps that accounts for the wildly colorful surrealism that occasionally pops into the narrative to help break up the drabness. Ida, with her mangled face and a shoe perched on her elaborately coiffed head, is the most obvious example. Perhaps there have been more well-realized dystopias in film, but surely none that are so wonderfully weird and strange, and committed to its director's own uncompromising, inimitable vision.
As satire, "Brazil" is absolutely vicious. The plot is set in motion by a typing error which causes an entirely innocent man to be seized and executed without anything resembling due process. However, the arresting officer does offer the victim's wife a receipt for his arrest. Minor repairs are entirely at the mercy of disreputable workmen who tend to exponentially complicate every situation. Competency and efficiency are practically viewed as rebellious acts. Many of the bureaucrat characters are so caricatured as to appear barely human. There's a fun gag with Deputy Minister, who appears at his office surrounded by a constantly babbling crowd of underlings who all want his attention. They move where he does, like a swarm of hornets. Perfectly ordinary seeming people are constantly doing horrible things in the name of the bureaucracy, all in very brisk, businesslike ways. And it's the veneer of social nicety that really twists the knife
Then there's the matter of the ending, which the Universal executives were so unhappy with that they attempted to recut the picture and substitute their own. Mild spoilers here, but what happens to Sam Lowry is unusually harsh for a picture that was backed by a major studio. Gilliam refused to give in, and fought back in the press to preserve his cut. There's not enough space to get into the details, but the anarchic spirit and relentless creativity of the film were reflected in Gilliam's campaign. The battle for "Brazil" resulted in one of the most famous victories of an artist over the system. I don't know that Gilliam would have prevailed today,
I have my issues with "Brazil." The plot is difficult to follow, as it is in may Gilliam pictures. Jonathan Pryce is not a strong leading man, and Kim Griest is downright iffy. But when it comes to sheer filmmaking guts and glory, "Brazil" is impossible to forget.
Terry Gilliam - What I've Seen
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Time Bandits (1981)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
The Fisher King (1991)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
The Zero Theorem (2013)