Written by Andy Dimond

UK, 1985. Rated R. 142 min Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm Michael Palin; Music: Kate Bush, Michael Kamen, Ray Cooper; Cinematography: Roger Pratt; Produced by: Patrick Cassavetti, Arnon Milchan; Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown; Directed by: Terry Gilliam

“8:49p.m., somewhere in the twentieth century.” A meek Ministry of Information file clerk named Sam Lowry sits at his desk and daydreams. In his mind he is a winged knight, charging boldly to the rescue of a beautiful blonde. By the end of Terry Gilliam’s zany 1985 chef d’oeuvre he will find that damsel in “real life” — which here consists of vicious corporate politics, grotesque plastic surgeries, even more grotesque food, propaganda posters, and mountains of paperwork, all taking place under the constant threat of government-sponsored torture, and punctuated by the occasional terrorist bombing.

The obvious point of reference for Gilliam’s shabby, brutal dystopia is George Orwell’s 1984. As countless high school English classes have demonstrated,
the intimidation and torture in Orwell (“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human faceæfor ever”) can be contrasted with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World of apolitical leisure whose people were simply encouraged to drown their worries in “soma” and frivolous sex, or distract themselves by going to the “feelies.” The notion that Huxley, rather than Orwell, got it right gained credence in the consumer paradise of postwar America, becoming almost a cliché by the time Brazil was made.

Although the bourgeoisie in Gilliam’s vision are pacified by means of cosmetic surgery and consumerism (the film is set at Christmastime — or have the holidays been declared permanent?), the director remains convinced, as Orwell was, that mankind’s essential pettiness and pathological will to power rule out such a comparatively rosy type of totalitarianism.

To protest that everyone from highest to lowest could live more comfortable lives under a different system is to miss the point entirely. As Orwell wrote: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.”

Yet never in Brave New World or 1984 are the powers-that-be anything less than ruthlessly efficient. What Gilliam adds to the mix is a firm belief in the survival of government ineptitude. As he said in a 1991 interview: “The fears of Brazil are not so much that the world is spinning out of control because of the system, because the system is us. What Brazil is really about is that the system isn’t great leaders, great machinating people controlling it all … Sam chooses to stay a little cog and ultimately he pays the price for that.” The society remains screwed only because most individuals are too cowardly to do anything about it.

Of course, the rulers are just smart enough to keep them that way. For Orwell’s world wars between constantly shifting alliances, Gilliam presciently substitutes an un-winnable and therefore never-ending War on Terror, making it impossible to watch Brazil in 2005 without an occasional cringe; what once were moments of surreal black comedy would now be met with looks of respectful seriousness
by cable news hosts. At one point the deputy Minister of Information is asked in a TV interview, “What do you believe is behind this recent increase in terrorist bombings?”

The response: “Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seems to have forgotten certain good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people would just play the game, they’d get a lot more out of life.” Replace the polite Anglicism of “bad sportsmanship” with the more melodramatic American “evil,” add something about “hating us for our freedom” and a dash of macho posturing, and you’ve got a White House homily.

It was “science fiction” in 1985 to propose that an advanced nation could detain its own citizens in total secrecy without charges, let alone torture them if it wished. How quaint. If Gilliam’s vision was short-sighted in any way, it was in just how well the majority of people would take to the us-versus-terrorists fantasy their leaders fashioned for them.

But just as eerily as some aspects of Brazil forecast our present political rut, the director’s own Hollywood experience ironically echoed its world of bureaucratic bumbling. Gilliam had managed to bring his tremendously ambitious film in on time, and on budget, but at 142 minutes, it ran ten longer than his contract stipulated. He went back to the cutting room to trim it down, but by the time he was done Universal president Sid Sheinberg had already completed his own cut, emphasizing the love-story thread and moments of Pythonesque humor while excising many of the film’s darker moments.

Sheinberg’s greatest crime, in Gilliam’s eyes as well as those of the following
Brazil has since attracted, was to replace his original ending of torture-chamber dissociation — the director has claimed the film had its origin in the question, “can one make a film where the happy ending is a man going insane?” — with a literal wish-fulfillment denouement that has Sam retire to the country with his dream girl. (To the horror of cinéphiles everywhere, this “Love Conquers All” cut still appears on television once in a while.)

When it became clear Sheinberg would not bend in his quest to make Brazil more “commercial,” Gilliam was advised to deploy some legal firepower. His response: “They’ve got all the lawyers in the world. They’ve got all the money. They don’t have to release the film.” Wary of confronting a superior enemy on the field of battle, Gilliam headed for the hills to wage a guerrilla war of public sympathy. He took out a full-page Variety ad consisting of the simple note: DEAR SID SHEINBERG, WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO RELEASE MY FILM ‘BRAZIL’? TERRY GILLIAM. Underground screenings and word-of-mouth made Brazil the hippest title of the year, like some kind of Hollywood samizdat. Harlan Ellison declared it “the finest science fiction movie ever made.” At last the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded the unreleased film Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Direction. Universal forced Sheinberg to release Gilliam’s cut.

“What was wonderful was I was getting all these phone calls from people saying ‘Oh, well done, maybe now the floodgates will open, we’ll get films out, blah blah blah.’ Of course it didn’t.” It certainly wasn’t the last time Gilliam himself would struggle to see his visions realized on the screen: from the screenwriting disputes on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the flabbergasting Don Quixote fiasco chronicled in Lost in La Mancha, Terry Gilliam has learned all too well: “Just like Brazil, the system doesn’t change. You just escape in your madness, that’s all.”

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