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Brazil: The Criterion Collection

Voyager Home Video

Starring Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin,
Kathrine Helmond, Kim Griest,
Ian Holm, and Bob Hoskins

Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown
Directed by Terry Gilliam

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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    

Brazil doesn't take place in the future, even though the totalitarian state it depicts resembles the cautionary novels of Aldus Huxley and George Orwell. Brazil doesn't take place in the past either, despite its Art Deco milieu, 1930s clothing and hairstyles, and clunky, jerry-rigged technology. Brazil happens in the 20th century — it just isn't our 20th century. It's more like Franz Kafka's 20th century.

In this parallel society of writer/director Terry Gilliam's fervent imagination, the government watches over everything, ruling with all the efficiency that a massive bureaucratic machine can muster. Enormous ducts run through every street, shop, and home, placed there and managed by the idiotic Central Services. Any encounter by an individual with the state is mediated through forms — forms that must be properly stamped and signed by numerous offices before a citizen may request a service or lodge a complaint. And the government's belief that a rogue terrorist group is waging war against the machine has given the Department of Information Retrieval enormous liberty to investigate and interrogate anybody they please. Individual rights and due process simply do not exist.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is one of the civil servants working for the Department of Records, but he's not the type who throws himself into his job. Instead, he dreams, and always about the same thing. Far from the urban nightmare in which he toils, he sees himself as a winged hero, clad in armor and flying above bucolic fields, ready to battle with the Forces of Darkness. His damsel-in-distress (Kim Griest), a lovely young woman with long blonde hair, is imprisoned, held in the sky by a flowing shroud. He loves her, but every time he tries to save her, he fails. In other words, he is rudely awakened, often by his shrill alarm clock and the noisy automated devices of his modern apartment.

But Sam's waking nightmare, the society in which he lives and the government he serves, has no use for dreamers or hopeless romantics — and he knows it. Sam's is a conformist, far too mild-mannered to question the system. He does his work efficiently and without fanfare, and meekly suffers under his extravagant mother (Katherine Helmond), a shallow socialite who only cares about lavish parties, the latest techniques in plastic surgery, and her son's advancing position with the government.

But then Sam calls Central Services one night to fix the heating in his apartment. Of course, they take forever to arrive, but in the meantime renegade handyman Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), who the government has been searching for, arrives to examine the apartment. It is Sam's first encounter with the sort of lone hero that he only dreams of being. Sam subsequently investigates a case of a man mistakenly arrested by Information Retrieval (who thought he was Tuttle), and then tortured to death. When visiting his widow, he catches a glimpse of her upstairs neighbor, a short-haired young woman in work clothes, but unmistakably the girl of his dreams. Suddenly, Sam takes a promotion from Information Retrieval so he can track the girl down — just so he can tell her he has been dreaming about her and that he loves her.

Gilliam's Brazil, when released in 1985, garnered much critical acclaim, and even though it made little money at the box office, it has gained a following over the years on home video, in part because this extensive Criterion edition was perhaps the most ambitious Laserdisc package ever made. The new DVD edition brings those five Laserdisc platters to a more manageable three, and with all of the benefits that DVD has to offer. Have no doubt about two things: Brazil is a great film, perhaps Gilliam's best, full of shocking images, dark humor, and visual surprises. And Brazil: The Criterion Collection is, to date, the most impressive DVD package to ever hit the street.

One glance at the extras on this big box is all you will need before you cancel your weekend plans. The Gilliam-approved 142-minute cut of Brazil (including a commentary track by Gilliam) is on Disc One, and it looks great. The source print is colorful and free of damage, and true to Criterion's track record, the transfer is entirely free of artifacts or video noise. Disc Two holds all the extras, including textual and video supplements on script development, storyboards, production design, costume design, special effects, and production and publicity stills. The original theatrical trailer can also be found here, along with a documentary short on the score with composer Michael Kamen, and Rob Hedden's 30-minute documentary "What is Brazil?", which features interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with the cast and crew.

But the best treat of Disc Two is the 60-minute feature "The Battle of Brazil," hosted by film critic Jack Mathews, a detailed look at the struggles between Gilliam and the bean-counters at Universal, who didn't think Gilliam's final cut was commercial enough for their $9 million investment and thus did everything in their power to get him to reduce the length of the movie and give it a more upbeat ending. All of the people involved are interviewed extensively by Mathews, and Gilliam's own comments on the matter are both caustic and very funny.

The Gilliam-approved cut of Brazil (to which Fox had international rights) was already playing in Europe and around the world when a shortened Brazil arrived in American theaters. However, Universal did get the upbeat movie they wanted in what's known as the "Love Conquers All" version of the film. Cut without Gilliam's participation, this 94-minute edition with a drastically different conclusion has only appeared on syndicated television.

And where is the "Love Conquers All" Brazil now? The entire version, with a commentary track by journalist David Morgan, can be found on Disc Three. It's not just a document of film editing — it illustrates what can happen when people who are not artists get their hands on something magnificent so they can "improve" it (much like the many Hitchock remakes we have endured over the past several years).

But what is Brazil? Why did Gilliam name this Kafkaesque nightmare after a South American country, or after a song about the country? Gilliam is asked why he chose the title, and like any good writer, he prefers to stay aloof from the subject, never giving a straight answer. I have my own opinions, but you will have to listen to his brief comments on the matter and decide for yourself.

— J. Jordan Burke

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