Universal // 1985 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Rogers (Retired) // July 12th, 2011
"Have a laugh at the horror of things to come."
It should be said before I try and review Brazil in any semblance of an objective manner that my childhood was defined by a certain Gilliam film. While other kids grew up on turgid stuff like The NeverEnding Story I watched our copy of Time Bandits enough times to wear out the VHS tape. Something about Terry Gilliam's vision spoke to me before I even knew who Gilliam was, let alone what the Auteur theory was. The combination of fantastical elements with a surrealist visionary style spoke to my imagination while Gilliam's patented dark humor and social commentary spoke to the burgeoning cynic in me. If you asked me then to put my finger on why I loved Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen I wouldn't have been able to tell you. But having grown up and viewed a much wider expanse of Gilliam's work, I've been able to find the pulse a bit better. Though The Brothers Grimm and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus did kill it there for a little bit.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce, Glengarry Glen Ross) is a jaded man down on his luck. The high-tech crap in his apartment constantly renders his toast inedible and his coffee too sweet. On top of that, he's stuck in a dead-end job and yet he kind of likes it; which is why he constantly denies the promotion that his rich yet sadistic mother constantly dangles in front of his face. But between his daydreams of saving a beautiful maiden from the clutches of evil -- a woman he's been seeing around every corner in the real world -- and a chance meeting with the vigilante mechanic Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull) who opens Lowry's eyes to the injustices around him, Sam beings to question the things he's just let slide. And thus begins a mad cap journey of self-discovery and heroics in a desolate wasteland of broken promises and shattered dreams. There's also a Godzilla-sized Samurai standing in the way of it all.
It's hard to sit here and call Brazil Gilliam's masterpiece when you look at his career and see all these heavy hitters. How can you pick between all these amazing films? It's certainly his most ambitious and most fully formed film thematically speaking. But part of me feels uncomfortable trying to compare it to 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail beyond anything but the visual aspect. It should be said though that Brazil was that point in his career where Gilliam had it all figured out, where any reservations about filmmaking, his art, or the final product he may have had were squashed by a strong sense of determination, pride and willful abandonment. If we're going off the Auteur theory, this was the film in which Gilliam's vision and artistry crystallized into a searingly beautiful moment of pure art.
Firstly, the film doesn't try to hide its influences in the slightest, with George Orwell's 1984 being the most obvious. There's the totalitarian government constantly looming overhead while oblivious workers toil under its thumb. Then there's the educated yet ambivalent or jaded hero who gladly takes up his role as a small cog in the vast machine until a mysterious girl forces him to re-evaluate the world around him. But where Orwell could be incredibly dry and boring, Gilliam knows to sell his tale with a dark sense of British humor and surrealist visuals to better highlight the folly of bureaucracy and the erosion of social morality at the hands of apathy.
This is not a subtle film in the slightest but it doesn't need to be. It's the vividness of the whole affair and the fact that everything is cranked up to 11 -- be it the visuals, the story or the thematics -- that defines the experience. The sheer absurdity of the themes present in this film is what makes it seem like it could be an authentic portrait of some not-too-distant futureworld. I mean the entire driving force behind the film is sparked off because a dead fly falls into an automatic typewriter and creates a typo. There's Jonathan Pryce looking like a Glam rock Icarus, complete with shiny metal armor. There's a giant screaming samurai, creepy hunchback skeleton baby creatures, the world's worst facelift, and let's not forget the 4 star restaurant that serves assorted gourmet pastes or its clientele that continues shoveling the muck down their throats in complete disregard to the terrorist explosion that's just left half the dining room bloodied and mangled. This is Gilliam's most fully realized world and it's this combination of suffocating totalitarian overtones, ferociously effective dark humor and a bitingly pitch-perfect sense of none-too-subtle satire that makes Brazil edge out so many other similar dystopian films. It's so off-beat and so different that it's hard not to fall in love with Gilliam's vision and the way he puts it across. I always come away from the film thinking how I will never see anything like it again. It's the true epitome of a masterpiece -- one in a long line of them for Gilliam.
What rounds out Gilliam's vision though is a cast of characters as game as the director at selling this nightmarish vision of bureaucracy run amok. It's a shame that Jonathan Pryce never truly got beyond small supporting character roles in his career because his performance as Sam Lowry, the underachieving everyman thrown into something way above his head, is so perfectly crafted and performed. He latches on to Lowry and develops him into a relatable antithesis to your average 80s action star. Equal parts jaded, razor sharp, and flustered -- with just a smidge of heroics -- Pryce holds the heavy weight of the entire film upon his shoulders and never falters. It probably doesn't hurt that you have Robert De Niro giving a brilliantly zany performance as Harry Tuttle, the renegade heating engineer helping the huddled masses while sticking it to The Man. It's a great performance that really showcases De Niro's versatility, especially considering his newfound penchant for walking through films in his later years. Other high notes are Ian Holm's (Alien) bureaucratic buffoon Mr. Kurtzmann, Bob Hoskin (The Long Good Friday) and Derrick O'Connor (Time Bandits) as the 27b-6 hating nemeses to Tuttle's Robin Hood-like visage, and Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge) as a sickeningly twisted plastic surgeon. I'm an unabashed fan of films stock full with character actors and Brazil certainly has that in spades.
The Blu-ray itself might cause more than a little contention however. Firstly, Gilliam's 142 minute director's cut is absent on the disc; what we have here is the standard 132 minute cut. While it's certainly not as bad as Universal's first cut of the film, it's still a bit of a disappointment. Secondly, the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p video transfer on this disc has a handful of consistency problems. Brazil has always been a very soft film. It was an artistic choice on Gilliam's part and while it's most apparent in the dream sequences, it's also there throughout. The Blu-ray does its best with what's been given but it's certainly not a disc that is going to astound you in terms of clarity. The rich color palette and surreal effects work have never looked better however and the disc does a good job of portraying the grandeur of the whole affair. This is further enhanced by an incredibly textural DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio track. It's dripping with clarity and variety, from the sweeping score to the ever looming aural presence of Sam Lowry's bureaucratic nightmare. This is a fine tuned audio track that had me floored.
The sad part is that this Blu-ray is completely devoid of special features. This is especially saddening considering Criterion's amazingly in-depth host of special features on their multiple DVD releases of the film. There is however BD-Live connectivity that allows you the great chance to log onto Universal's site to watch some trailers. Oh my, how technology has advanced! Does anyone remember when BD-Live was touted as a game changer?
DVD Verdict has attempted to confirm with Criterion whether or not they still hold the rights and plan to release their own Blu-ray edition. Sadly, our messages have not been returned. We'll update this review as soon as we have a definitive answer.
It's not hard to see why Brazil was not as warmly welcomed when it first came out. Partly this was because of Universal's insistence on giving the film a happier tone by cutting out large chunks and effectively neutering Gilliam's vision. In this way it's slightly comical to take the themes of the film about government interference and censorship and extrapolate it onto Universal's decision. But the largest chunk of why Brazil probably didn't resonate with a majority of critics or the public on its first release largely rests on the fact that it's completely different than anything anyone had ever seen before. How would you prepare yourself for something so off-beat, unique and visually arresting? To watch Brazil on the big screen is like being bombarded by stimuli of all kinds while trying to wrest control of a potent LSD trip, quickly spiraling out of control, with nitrous. It's profoundly maddening to try and take it all in. But time has treated the film nicely and brought the respect it has deserved all these years. The film is now a bona fide cult hit specifically because of these things, and this Blu-ray will assure its position for many more years to come even if it does leave some things to be desired.
Not guilty but the lack of special features should see someone from Universal hung until dead.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Rogers; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R