by Sherry Lipp
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Brazil – The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil offers a glimpse into a future where bureaucracy rules, individual expression and thought is feared, and class is the only thing that matters. The themes are common to many a dystopian tale, but the execution is unique. Brazil is often humorous, at times confusing, and is somewhat unsettling in its depiction of a shattered futuristic society. The film is not an easy one to like, but it is always interesting. It might be said that Gilliam did not have high hopes for the future at the time he wrote this film. The idea that success breeds the loss of individuality is laced throughout this film, making it an uncomfortable reflection of everyday life.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a government worker, spends his days performing meaningless clerical tasks and his nights dreaming he is a winged superhero saving a damsel in distress. The government is highly inefficient, processing form after form without ever accomplishing anything. The inefficiency is cleverly represented visually by equally meaningless ducts that litter every structure in the city. The ducts intersect through homes, offices, and even fine restaurants, but they don’t appear to have a beginning or an end. Whatever they are transporting just travels in endless circles, never really getting anywhere.
Sam longs for a different life but has no ambition to change anything. Even his plastic surgery-addicted socialite mother (Katherine Helmond) arranging a promotion for him does not spur him to leave his dead-end job. His ineffective boss (Ian Holm) professes to not be able to live without him, but that’s only because he makes Lowry do all of his work. One day Sam attempts to correct a clerical error by circumventing the red-tape and going straight to the source. In this case the source is the widow of a man falsely arrested for terrorism. A “bug” in the system caused one letter in the last name to be mistyped causing the incarceration of the innocent Mr. Buttle instead of the terrorist Mr. Tuttle.
Sam gets caught up in the resistance movement when he spots a pretty neighbor upstairs of the Buttles. The attractive lady looks just like his dream girl and Sam will stop at nothing to find her again. Finally Sam has something to motivate change in his life, but the kind of change Sam seeks is not tolerated by anyone in his life. His mother wants him to do what she wants, and his boss wants him right where he is. His friend Jack (Michael Palin) is so roped into the system, he continues to call his wife by the wrong name after his boss mistakenly confuses it. But Sam can’t resist the chance to be a real superhero by rescuing the girl from the clutches of a fascist society.
Brazil is full of strange imagery and odd characters. Robert De Niro turns up in a comedic performance as the real Mr. Tuttle, a rogue heating and air-conditioning repairman. Though the setting is in the future, everything has an old fashioned look. The men wear suits and hats reminiscent of the 1940s. The computers are old manual typewriters with reflective screens and a multitude of tubes and wires attached to them that make them appear electronic. Even the little one-person car Sam drives has a look suggesting what old ‘50s sci-fi films thought the future might look like.
For all of its compelling concepts, inventive art design, and absurd humor, I found Brazil to be a difficult movie to watch. There’s so much going on that the film becomes overwhelming. Towards the end, the plot becomes confusing as the story switches back and forth between reality and fantasy—sometimes without making it obvious which is which. Brazil is the type of movie that may require multiple viewings to be fully appreciated, if you can acclimate yourself to its nearly assaultive visual style.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray is presented in a MPEG-4, 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I have never seen any other version of Brazil so I cannot compare the quality to a previous release. I found this picture to be mixed. The indoor scenes featuring medium and close-up shots are very sharp, with vibrant colors. Wide shots were occasionally a little softer focus. The outdoor scenes appeared grainy, with the colors somewhat dull and the image less sharp. This was most apparent in the fantasy sequences where Sam is flying through the clouds (filmed indoors, but set outdoors). Overall, however, the picture is pretty solid for a lower-budget film from 1985. The booklet included with the Blu-ray indicates that Terry Gilliam himself approved this transfer, and dirt, scratches, jitters, and other imperfections were meticulously cleaned from the print.
The sound is presented as a lossless 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The soundtrack is very good, with fine clarity and a strong presence. Sounds of police crashing through apartment windows, car tires screeching, and gun fire come through clearly. Dialogue is also clear and never gets lost, even in the more cacophonous action scenes. The focus is on “cacophonous,” as the sound mixing is intentionally chaotic during the action-oriented scenes. The soundtrack is free of pops or cracks.
The two-disc set is packed with special features. Disc one contains an audio commentary with director Terry Gilliam that was ported over from the 1996 Criterion DVD release. Disc two contains several documentaries and featurettes, along with the 90-minute, so-called “Love Conquers All” version of the film. This version was an attempt at a more commercial version of the film demanded by the studio. Not only is this version much shorter, but sequences appear in a different order, there are alternate takes of scenes, and the ending is different than the original version. This version also contains a commentary track from Brazil expert David Morgan. This cut was assembled without Gilliam’s approval and has been included for reference purposes only (it hasn’t been restored and it framed at 1.33:1).
The booklet included with the set features an essay from film critic David Serritt. The featurettes are very substantial and include the 30-minute on-set documentary “What is Brazil,” the 70-minute “Production Notebook,” which is broken down into several sections, and the hour-long “The Battle of Brazil: A Video History.” This documentary appeared on the 1996 Criterion DVD. “Battle” documentary is a comprehensive look at Gilliam’s fight with the studio over the U.S. release of the film. It’s perfect for better understanding the bastardized “Love Conquers All” cut and the fascinating fight undertaken by Gilliam to preserve his unique vision.