Criterion // 1985 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Rafael Gamboa (Retired) // August 28th, 2006
"It's only a state of mind."
It has been dismissed as overblown and overrated, but it has also been praised as one of the finest dystopian tales since George Orwell's 1984. This powerfully divisive film is the frustrated diatribe of a mind drowning in insanity and desperately trying to escape a world whose people are held prisoner by their own fabrications. Terry Gilliam's fantastical allegory about modern bureaucratic society is a film reviled by some and adored by others, but despite being one of the most polemic works of contemporary cinema, it is unquestionably one of its most important.
Set "somewhere in the 20th century," Brazil is a film about low-level Ministry of Information paper pusher Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) and his struggle to free himself from the societal system. He dreams of an angelic woman, but when he finds a lookalike in a real-life suspected terrorist, his obsession with her will lead him to rebel against the government he works for, and a desperate quest for escape and freedom ensues.
Not having seen the original theatrical version of this film, I can't comment on how Terry Gilliam's (Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) director's cut improves upon those versions, if at all, so don't read further if that is what you are expecting.
When Gilliam is on form, he somehow manages to make films in an unmistakable style that is both loudly abrasive and yet wonderfully sophisticated. There isn't any doubt as to what this film is about, but despite its obvious themes, Brazil overcomes its narrative and visual thickness on the power of its fantastic dialogue, eye for detail, and delicious sense of metaphor and irony.
After Sam Lowry is forced to improvise to cover rogue handyman Harry Tuttle's (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull, Meet the Fockers) illegal repairs to a faulty heating unit, Harry compliments him by saying, "You are a good man in a tight corner." The comment, put into the larger context of the film's universe, ironically summarizes Sam's situation: a sane man confined by the madness of reality. The film explores this theme to perfection with exquisite set design and disturbingly claustrophobic photography. Every location, while often vastly different from the next, always feels like a prison cell. Sometimes the comparison is direct: Sam is forced at one point to work in a uniformly gray office that can't be more than four feet wide and cluttered to the point of suffocation. Other times, the prison walls are the thick seas of human traffic, the miniscule car Sam is forced to drive, or the oppressive, austere emptiness of a vast concrete interior. The prison imagery is so omnipresent that the entire film feels like a dungeon, a maze without escape. Even Sam's dreams, which represent his search for freedom, are marred by the chains of his real life, turning them into nightmares without outlets; the dreams begin in the blissful openness of flight in the sky, and eventually become almost indistinguishable from reality.
"Reality" is a world that is strangling itself with organization run rampant. The increasing levels of complexity smother every nook and niche in daily life like parasitic vines or, in this case, like the ducts that snake across and through every room in every structure. The society portrayed is one that has surrendered its ability to think to the bureaucratic behemoth of its own creation. The mind of a good citizen does nothing but follow the paperwork trail until it can do nothing else; even simple yes-or-no decisions are relegated to a small desktop toy. Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm, Alien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) is the epitome of the social drone, incapable of handling even the simplest of irregularities without the aid of Lowry's stubbornly active mind. It is a world obsessed with forms upon forms upon forms, adhering to the systematic letter of the law to the point of total detachment from a recognizable humanity: A terrorist bomb explodes in a restaurant, and the maitre d's solution for the inconvenience posed to the unaffected diners is to put up a façade between them and the scene of destruction. After all, it's not his job to help the wounded; his job is to keep his customers comfortable. "It's not my department" and "You don't have the proper paperwork" are the phrases that continually brush away all responsibility. This willful blindness to anything other than the task at hand is brilliantly reflected in the nature of the computers used throughout: The screens are as tiny as the people's perspectives, grandly enlarged to an absorbing size by magnifying lenses.
The film would completely implode under the sheer weight of all this if it didn't benefit from the terrific performances delivered by the cast. Jonathan Pryce is perfect as the befuddled and desperate everyman, and Robert De Niro's Tuttle is probably one of the coolest cats in the history of cinema. Both are irresistibly charismatic and full of the vitality and common sense that have become criminal in this topsy-turvy universe. The rest are a motley crew of characters gone bonkers. Katherine Helmond is frightening as Sam's rich and influential mother Ida, who wears a shoe for a hat and who surrenders herself to the rigorous demands of presentability. Peter Vaughn is eerie as the physically helpless Mr. Helpmann. Ian Holm once again delivers an exemplary performance as Mr. Kurtzmann, as does Michael Palin (The Life of Brian) as Sam's estranged friend Jack Lint.
The dialogue is exceptional, but that's expected when Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) is involved with the script. The script perfectly crafts a language for a people whose priorities are perversely warped. It is both humorous and infuriating to listen to, but there is no denying the quality of the writing. Take, for example, People's Exhibit G:
Guard: "Do cooperate; confess to your crimes quickly. The longer you hold out, you'll run the risk of ruining your credit rating."
The DVD also comes with a rich commentary track by director Terry Gilliam that is one of the most informative, entertaining, and insightful commentaries I have heard in a long, long time. It is a fantastic track and a must-listen, made even more fascinating by the small moments when it betrays the date it was recorded.
Here come the potential deal-breakers. As a fan of subtlety, I don't usually take to excess very well; in fact, I despise it on principle. But then again, I can't think of a movie I have seen in which stylistic excess is more appropriate to the material (with the exception of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange). Enjoyment of the film will depend greatly on how the audience appreciates this sort of approach.
When I said this film was narratively and visually thick, perhaps it was an understatement. This is a sensory and thematic overload of frustrated imagination. The audience will find itself drowning in stuff: papers, ducts, people, sounds, music, papers, walls, wires, papers -- anyone without a high tolerance for cinematic claustrophobia and oppression will find this film abhorrent. It's messy, cluttered, inefficient, contradictory, repetitive, and excessive. In short, it is a perfect reflection of the world it is attempting to portray, but many viewers might find themselves resenting being forced into such a direct experience of distastefulness, especially considering its 146-minute running time. Watching this film can certainly be exhausting, and it's difficult to decide if it's good that it's so committed to its subject matter, or bad that it risks driving people insane.
The story is also frustrating as it approaches the finale. It oscillates between happy and dismal endings repeatedly, schizophrenically switching gears until finally settling on a depressingly ambiguous destination that seems anticlimactic. Taking the audience on a wild dash to the light, then plunging it into misery, then pulling it back out into hope, only to drop into darkness -- well, you get the point. It could easily piss off those who sat through the madness in the hope of seeing some sort of redemption, and instead find themselves angrily asking what the freakin' point of it was. The film requires a certain degree of patience in this regard.
The DVD comes with the packaging you'd expect from Criterion, but the content is lacking. Yes, it comes with the excellent commentary track, but that's it. The only other bonus feature is an "essay" by Jack Matthews in the accompanying pretty booklet, which in reality is more of a short written introduction than an essay. This dearth of materials really shouldn't come as a surprise, seeing as this release is actually disc one of a ridiculously comprehensive three-disc set that was chucked into a case of its own and tossed out to the market for those who don't want to spend fifty-plus dollars on a movie. To mask the fact that Criterion is shortchanging you with the single disc, the booklet makes a big noise about how full of bottled awesomeness the digital transfer is -- which it is, but it seems a bit callous to pretend this is an excellent DVD when it is obviously inferior. It's also aggravating that Criterion has an extravagantly bloated release of the same movie but doesn't have something more middle-of-the-road. Why not a reasonably priced two-disc set instead of this almost useless one? If it weren't for the spectacular commentary track, this DVD wouldn't have enough weight to pin down a fly.
One last thing bugged me about the DVD, and as usual the peeve is interface related. This disc has English subtitles, but they are completely inaccessible through the menus. Why is this? Why assume people will hit the subtitle option on their DVD player despite a complete lack of evidence that subtitles exist? If it hadn't been for the back of the case, I would never have known. Imagine people renting this online or in generic store cases. Menus should be the most honest and user-friendly things in the universe, so that even a quadruple lobotomy patient will be able to navigate through them to access everything the disc has to offer.
Brazil is a cathartic outcry that is as disturbing as it can be exhilarating, and eventually leaves you somewhere in the middle, wondering if anything was accomplished. Is true escape possible, or is it an empty illusion? The question as presented is unanswerable, and in a sense immortal. Like the question it raises, the film is enduring, ever relevant and ever resonant. Despite the disappointing disc, this is still a must-own movie.
Due to the ambiguity of the defendant, the court has to declare a mistrial. Brazil is free to go.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rafael Gamboa; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director Terry Gilliam
* Booklet with Essay by Jack Matthews
* The Criterion Collection