A daydreaming bureaucratic employee breaks free from the mental and physical shackles engineered by the totalitarian government in order to seek justice and the woman of his dreams.
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Part whimsical satire of a dystopian futuristic society. Part subjective perspective of a delusional mind. Until he tried making his now legendary failed cinematic attempt of Don Quixote, “Brazil” was probably Terry Gilliam’s most painful project as a filmmaker. As a matter of fact, the former Python told Maxim magazine that he lost all feeling in his legs for a week due to the stress of production.
Robert De Niro’s insistence of methodical research for the character of Harry Tuttle, for instance, caused the director considerable torment.
But if Mr. Gilliam was suffering from his own mental anguish during the filming of “Brazil”, it was nothing compared to what would follow during the movie’s post-production phase. In ways that ironically resemble Sam Lowry’s frustrated attempts to discover the truth in a propaganda-oriented society, Gilliam suffered severe hardships from the studio to present his film the way he had originally written it.
Gilliam’s version of the film is 142-minute artistic fantasy that combines the themes of absurdist machinery and Orwellian bureaucracy fused together in a totalitarian society. One of the most iconographic images of this movie is that of a squashed bug inside an automated typewriter, which spells doom for innocent citizen Archebald Buttle as the malfunctioning apparatus is printing out execution orders for Archebald “Harry” Tuttle.
Under Gilliam’s brilliant guidance and skill as a storyteller, the film is dark and suggestive that the coldness of technology will fail to save the human race and that government intervention will silence any dissenting opinions.
Universal Studios chairman Sid Sheinberg, however, wanted a shorter movie with a typical Hollywood ending. As a result, the studio infuriated Gilliam by re-editing “Brazil” down to a 94-minute “Love Conquers All” version, which began circulating around Hollywood in videotape format, even though the director’s cut was yet to be released in theaters.
Gilliam even went on “Good Morning, America” with De Niro at his side and made his feud with Sheinberg public. In a maneuver of personal vilification, Gilliam presented an 8 x 10 photo of Sheinberg to host Joan Lunden while the cameras were rolling. The stunt completely outraged the studio head and made their conflict even more personal.
Complicating matters further, Gilliam was invited by the University of Southern California to present his original cut of the film as an audio visual aid for a film class. But due to the university’s advertising of “Brazil” as a free screening for the students, the executives at Universal intervened and attempted to block the film from being shown. Never one to back away from a fight, Gilliam presented his version of “Brazil” anyway at USC, which enabled the local critics to finally view it. It wasn’t long until the critics began suggesting awards for “Brazil”, which finally caused the studio heads to relent and release Gilliam’s version.
But all of this controversy within the studio begs the critical burning question: Is the movie worthy of all this hysteria? After all, what is the underlining story? And is it really that engaging to deserve all of this dramatic hype?
Artistically speaking, the movie is completely stunning. Nominated for Best Art Direction, Norman Garwood and Maggie Gray create an otherworld-like culture that could be recognizable in a Frank Miller graphic novel. Even though the story enlists the problematic devices of futuristic machinery, the overall set design resembles 1940s film noir, specifically in terms of costume and lighting. On-line film critic James Berardinelli hit the nail on the head when he said it is “a view of what the 1980s might have looked at viewed from the perspective of a 1940s filmmaker.”
In terms of thematic quality, “Brazil” is described by Gilliam as a triumph of the human spirit.
“The architecture may be oppressive but the people are not,” Gilliam says. “The human spirit is not that easily extinguishable. So this could never be a solemn story of depersonalization and victimization. People hang on to their individuality no matter what.”
In addition to Orwell, Gilliam also channels Sergei M. Eisenstein’s “Bronenosets Potyomkin” (except instead of a baby carriage falling down a staircase among the descending storm troopers, it’s a vacuum cleaner), and his longtime hero, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s influence on Gilliam can be spotted in Sam’s fantasy samurai dream.
In all honesty, there are many aspects of cohesive story structure lacking in the movie’s plotline. While few people will disagree the film is an impressive collection of special effects artistry, the seemingly endless montage sequences of the bizarre will undoubtedly exhaust and frustrate some audience members who want a digestible storyline.
As Sam Lowry encounters one absurdist episode after another, the routine becomes dizzyingly repetitive and increasingly irritating. By the third act, the narrative content becomes completely surreal and the visual imagery embraces the ridiculous. For the moviegoer interested in concrete story material, there seems little to focus on but the final credits.
“I didn’t want to make a grim story,” Gilliam says of this escapist entry (the second in a trilogy: the first being “Time Bandits”, the third being the forthcoming “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”). “I am making entertainment. If you’re going to say something, say it in an entertaining manner, so people will catch themselves laughing and suddenly realize, ‘I shouldn’t be laughing at that.’”
“I think one of the reasons why people don’t get ‘Brazil’ is because of the density of it,” says Katherine Helmond, who plays Sam Lowry’s manipulative mother, whose self-absorbed character is obsessed with the effects of her own plastic surgery. “There is so much in it that it’s impossible to see it one time through. His mind is so fertile, and his imagination is so fertile. And his visualization is so rich that you just can’t see it all.”