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Alternative Christmas Films - Brazil

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Brazil had a huge impact on the teenage me, from the very first time I saw it I instantly got it. Whatever it was. The fact that my dad (who'd introduced me to Monty Python and subsequently by default - Gilliam) hated Brazil only made it even better. Here was something that only I understood, a film I'd found all on my own, a film that required a degree of decoding and more than a little effort to watch. But more than that it arrived in my life at just the right time, a time when I was starting to question everything around me, a time when I was supposed to be preparing for the rest of my life by knuckling down and doing well at school. Instead I was becoming obsessed with surrealism and the Dada movement, Chuck D, Roger Waters and Eno were my musical idols, I'd just read 1984, The Catcher in the Rye and Naked Lunch for the first time and my head was abuzz with the ideas that would grow and inform who I eventually became. And right at the center of all of that was Terry Gilliam's masterpiece - Brazil.

I first stumbled upon Brazil on BBC2 back in the late eighties. The thing that drew me to it was the little blurb in the TV listing that stated it was by the person who'd made Time Bandits. That hooked me straight away, I'd loved Time Bandits as a kid and used to rent it on a monthly basis, this being in those dark days before ordinary people could actually own films. Brazil was the film that introduced me to the idea of auteur theory too, since after falling in love with it I started to link films together via directors rather than actors, which is what I had done before my epiphany.

So what is Brazil? Well it's a lot of things, almost all of them contradictory. For starters it's a very British film that just so happens to be directed by an American for a major Hollywood studio. It's also set in a dystopian future that has been set dressed with things from the past. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, so let's backtrack for a second and I'll try my best to write a brief synopsis.

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a lowly bureaucrat in a world tied up in red tape. He has no ambitions, but he does have dreams, quite literally - he dreams of an ethereal girl whom he continually rescues by casting himself as a armored winged hero. A departmental error forces him out of the comfortable environment of his office and into the real world, where he bumps into the girl from his dreams - Jill Layton (Kim Greist). From there things spiral beyond Sam's control, he becomes mixed up with a subversive repairman (Robert De Niro) and his fantasy world and real world begin to overlap.

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Brazil is an intricate film to say the least, and to really get the most out of it you need to have a basic grasp on what Britain was like during the mid eighties. Back then Britain wasn't so much swinging as sinking. The optimism of the sixties high had long since faded leaving behind a sense of defeat and mild betrayal. The country Napoleon once described as a nation of shopkeepers was now on the dole. Those that weren't unemployed were most likely on strike, teachers, nurses, firemen, coal workers, ship builders and factory workers all downed tools at various times. The Conservative Government even tried (and failed) to send the army in against the striking miners in order to break their lengthy strike. Add to that the fact that British industry was on it's knees, the shipyards were steadily closing and our car industry had folded, and you can tell things weren't rosy. To top it off the Government had decided to privatise key public assets starting with British Telecom. Public became private. If the key word of the sixties was LOVE, then for the eighties it almost certainly had to be GREED.

Also the IRA had stepped up it's bombing campaign, detonating a series of bombs around London. Anyone who lived through those times will remember the bombs in both Regents and Hyde Park as well as the bombing of Harrods during the Christmas season. Most famously though the IRA managed to bomb the the Grand Hotel in Brighton where the Conservative Party were staying during their annual get together. Fun times it wasn't.

It's all of the above more than anything else that runs through Brazil like letters through a stick of cheap seaside rock. Gilliam and his co-writers (Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown) real masterstroke was to be able to get all of the above (and a whole lot more) up on screen, almost without people noticing. How? By placing it all within the framework of a Science Fiction/Fantasy flick. Even the greatest most political British directors of the time - Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke - couldn't shoehorn all that into one film.

Phew! Right so history lesson over, let's get onto the film itself. Brazil is surprisingly enough set at Christmas. Sam spends most of the film receiving the same gift (an executive toy that makes decisions for you) from the people around him. Mrs Buttle (or is that Tuttle?) is reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol (the second greatest of all Christmas stories) to her children just before her husband is taken away for interrogation. In fact just before the police swoop in through the windows and down the hole drilled in the ceiling, one of her children asks how Santa will be able to deliver presents if they don't have a chimney? Even towards the end when Mr. Helpmann (the ever wonderful Peter Vaughan) visits Sam in his holding cell, he's dressed as Santa and has just stopped in on his way to entertain the orphans.

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One of the great things about Brazil is the fact that it's hero - Sam - is actually quite detestable in his early scenes, he's so passive, ignoring the viciousness of the real world, in favour of his fantasy one. For instance when he has dinner with his mother and the restaurant is bombed, he's not alarmed and does nothing more than finish his meal - 'It's my lunch hour. Besides, it's not my department.' he explains to his fellow diners. He's only awakened to what is going on or able to feel any empathy once he comes into contact with people outside of his sphere. In fact it's two female characters (Jill Layton and Veronica Buttle) that force him to rethink the world he's living in. Sam only gets anywhere in his professional life thanks to his mother pulling strings for him, and only discovers Jill's name thanks to a little girl telling him it right after the gang of urchins set his Messerschmitt alight. Making Brazil one of those rare films where the women are more potent than the men. Which isn't such a strange concept when you consider who the British Prime Minister was at the time. There's a great visual gag when Sam's traveling home on the train and Gilliam pans the camera around the carriage of seated men to reveal a lone woman standing. Which in itself is quite unchivalrous, but just to add insult to injury the camera ends up at her feet to reveal that she only has one leg. It's these little moments that keep Brazil fresh even for the most ardent fan. Much like the numerous 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' style posters that are scattered throughout the film.

Being a film by Terry Gilliam you know it's going to have a wonderful look to it. Gilliam is very much an old school director, favoring image over words every time. Which is not all that surprising when you consider his background in animation. His sets are stuffed to the gills with eye candy, most of which is only revealed upon repeated viewings. His use of locations is a delight too, Gilliam works best when on a limited budget, give him a stack of dollars and he'll build a set, hold back on the cash however and he'll find a set. So thanks to budget constraints we go from a working Oil Refinery through to strange modernist French housing estates and of course most famously the inside of a cooling tower. Creative solutions to problems rather than the usual money hose that Hollywood favours. His sets looked lived in too, there's a patina on the surface of everything.

Brazil isn't set in the future so much as an alternative now. If Blade Runner was Future Noir, then Brazil is Future Retro. The fashions for a start hark back to the fifties and that whole post WWII feeling - rationing coming to an end, clothes having more material, wider lapels and dresses that flowed, hats for everyone that kind of thing. The haircuts also date from that era as do the furnishings. The technology on show is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces from the past, all cobbled together typewriters and old valves, ducts everywhere. Of course none of it actually works, lifts, computers, toasters you name it it's all on the fritz.

It's also a film chock full of film references too, from Casablanca ('Here's looking at you kid'), Battleship Potemkin (the fight on the steps towards the end of the film) and even The Empire Strikes Back (when Sam removes the Samurai mask to reveal his own face). It's the shadow of Metropolis that looms largest over the whole film though.

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Of course the thing that Brazil is most famous for now is the battle that Gilliam had with Universal head honcho Sid Sheinberg, who didn't care for Brazil at all and loathed it's downbeat ending. I've only ever watched the 'Love Conquers All' version once. It's interesting for anyone who adores the film enough to see just how it might have ended up. Thankfully for us Gilliam stuck to his guns and saw it through to the end, eventually winning his fight and having his cut become the default version. Speaking of endings Brazil has the best ending for a film that I can think of. It's up there with the greats - Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove and Some Like It Hot. It's a total shock to the system the first time you see it, and it's one of those that you'll never forget.

Jonathan Pryce will always be Sam Lowry for me in much the same way as Richard E. Grant will always be Withnail. Pryce really gives it everything and gets to show a lot of range from slapstick through to action hero. I couldn't ever imagine anyone else as Sam Lowry. Apparently Gilliam wasn't all that happy with Kim Greist's performance and cut down her role accordingly in the edit suite. You'd never know from watching the film though, she's feisty and hard to read all the way through. The rest of the cast is really a who's who of British acting from that period, Bob Hoskins, Ian Richardson and Jim Broadbent all get extended cameos yet manage to really stamp themselves onto the celluloid. Gilliam regulars Michael Palin, Ian Holm and Katherine Helmond get a bigger piece of the pie. All three are first-class, Palin is deliciously weaselly as Sam's best friend - Jack Lint, Helmond plays Sam's manipulative plastic surgery obsessed mother, a fantastic role that she doesn't waste. Best of all though is Holm who almost manages to steal the show as Sam's boss the sad and rather pathetic Mr. Kurtzmann.

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Behind the camera Roger Pratt returned as cinematographer after having already worked on Gilliam's segment in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, as did editor Julian Doyle. I can't write about Brazil without a nod to Michael Kamen's sublimely odd score, which bounces between full on heroic strings to a bizarre symphony for typewriters, as well as several versions of Ary Barroso's Aquarela do Brasil. Weird but perfect.

Brazil is without a doubt for me Terry Gilliam's masterpiece. His follow up The Adventures of Baron Munchausen tried to do everything that it's predecessor had done, but ultimately failed. Tales of overspending, of sets being destroyed and of general on set chaos only fueled the legend that Gilliam was a difficult director, a perfectionist that would do almost anything to achieve the vision in his head. Gilliam managed to pick himself up after the debacle of Munchausen (which I like a lot by the way), and even managed to make successful films (12 Monkeys, The Fisher King) without ever giving losing sight of his distinctive vision. Since 12 Monkeys however he has struggled to get projects off the ground, and seems to have lost the momentum that was so essential in making Brazil.

Ultimately Brazil can be read a number of ways, at it's core it's a love story, but it's also about the bureaucracy of modern life, the suppression of the masses by the few, the technological revolution and how it's failed us. In hindsight though maybe more than any of that it's about a director standing up to a giant studio system and saying 'No'.

by Lawrence


Nice article Lawrence. This is one of those few films I do not find too many detractors for (if you dislike the film please pipe up so Lawrence can argue with you).

This movie can definitely be read several ways. It is one of the few films that appears on Libertarian (small government fans like Objectivists) lists of best films.

I do think that Gilliam likes to play the martyr sometimes. Fighting for fighting sakes. I agree with his vision on this film though (though technically if he had cut just about 10 minutes of the film he could have had his version published and I believe because of the contract they would not have been able to put out the alternate version).

Its funny the first version I saw on TV was the Sheinberg cut. I was so happy to see the longer version years later.
Cheers Master. Strangly the version I had taped off TV was different to the version I now own. It started with a black screen rather than the clouds. So there is at least a European version out there too.

Gilliam is his own worst enemy, the fighting for the sake of fighting thing is very British. Maybe it's rubbed off on him since he's lived there for so long.

One thing I felt I had to cut out of my piece was a mention of the amount of deaths in Brazil. The very first person on screen dies instantly and it never let's up after that. My favourite death though is De Niro's death by paperwork. Genius.
Brazil is one of the films I tend to lend the most. In fact I'm going to lend it to a friend today. When discussing films with friends/acquaintances it's like -> "You haven't seen Brazil? Do you want to? I have a copy to lend. You may make fun of me for not seeing <insert film here> but you haven't seen Brazil and that's the blinkered pig ignorance I'm come to expect from you non-creative swine."

I've liked most of the Gilliam films I have seen including The Adventures of Baron Munchausen .

Death by paperwork: any more fitting ending for an anti-bureaucracy film?
Good read Lawrence, I enjoyed that. I'm embarrassed to say I had never seen this movie until my copy came in the mail last week. But It's ok, since the first time I ever had the pleasure, it was as Gilliam intended. What an enjoyable experience. I will be watching it again this weekend already, I loved it!
It is odd just how many people absolutely love this weird esoteric film isn't it? There's so much to take in first time 'round that its begs to be watched again A.S.A.P.
My younger brother enjoyed it, my father hated it. The old man has always been a good sci-fi co-pilot, but maybe it was the Python flavour of it all?

I love Gilliam's miniature work in films like this and Munchausen, nobody does it quite like him. Ian Holm and Bob Hoskins were phenomenal in this, and this is tied with Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) as my favorite Jonathan Pryce roles.
I have real thing about miniatures too. His move into using CGI is what really let down some of his later films such as The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Brothers Grimm. I do love the fact that Peter Jackson managed to use so many old fashioned techniques in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.