It is difficult to choose just one film by Terry Gilliam as a favorite. He's done so many excellent films, and because of that is probably the auteur I hold in the highest regard. If I had to pick just one, it would have to be the middle entry in his unofficial Dreamer's Trilogy - Brazil.
I honestly don't know why it's called Brazil, but I'm sure some sharp-eyed reader who has, unlike me, gotten to the second disc of the Criterion DVD box will point it out in an e-mail. It's certainly the most non sequitir title I've ever heard - perhaps the song "Brazil" which appears in the soundtrack, has some thematic lyrics. Perhaps I'm talking out of my rear end...
Never mind my rambling. On to the film.
Brazil is set "Somewhere in the 20th Century," but it isn't a thing like the 100 years we just got through with...or is it? The world is a giant buereaucratic mess, with everything requiring a form of some sort and everybody being watched over by the very Orwellian Ministry of Information. In the middle of it all, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is trying very hard not to stand out in the crowd. What little ambition he has takes the form of fantastic dreams where he is a winged hero. However, Sam is quickly drawn into a nightmare that he didn't bargain for. A bug in the system (literally) causes a Mr. Buttle to be arrested instead of a Mr. Tuttle (Robert DeNiro). Normally, Sam wouldn't care, but involved in the whole mess is Jill (Kim Greist), who looks exactly like the angelic female in his dreamworld. Soon, he's becoming very noticable trying to help her out, something the Ministry isn't pleased with at all.
One of the things I'd forgotten about the movie is how funny it is. I scoffed when it was filed under "Comedy" at the video store, but that's what it really is - a brilliant satire of the Information Age. The mockery isn't always subtle, but it's nearly always dead on. Plus, there's a good helping of physical humor, something Pryce does with flair. Note especially his hi-jinks with a shared desk, a priceless routine.
However, if you're the kind of person who hates humor (and you probably aren't fond of puppies, either, you poor oaf), than you must see the dazzling visuals. While they are quite pronounced in the fantasy sequences, it's in the "real world" where they truly shine. If Kafka was a production designer, this would be his masterwork. Ducts everywhere, friendly signs to remind you how to think ("Suspicion breeds confidence"), huge statues, mammoth buildings, unending warren-like corridors. The costumes, too, are something to behold, including a new, and incredibly disturbing, spin on the old executioner's mask. Mere words can do little to describe the feast of visual delights set before the viewer.
Eating up that banquet is Gilliam's camera, which chooes to defy normal camera placement at every turn, but for good reason. When he does something interesting with the lens, it provokes an emotion, something only the best films can do. He manages to make the tone of the movie both hopeless and optimistic. We know that Sam probably can't win, but we're willing to believe, if only for a second, that he can.
Of course, this unpromising faith is as much the work of Gilliam as it Jonathan Pryce, who makes the dreamer in a world of nightmare so likable. It's a performance like this that is truly a wonder, and a lot of the film's believability hinges on him. Let's face it - a man risking everything to pursue a woman he's never met and who has only been previously seen in figments of his imagination isn't exactly easy to stomach. However, Pryce makes it seem like it would be unreasonable not to do exactly that. Genius.
The rest of the cast measures up well enough. Easily the next best is DeNiro as renegade heating engineer Harry Tuttle, but then again, it's DeNiro, so quality isn't a surprise. Katherine Helmond turns in a delightfully over-the-top performance as Sam's youth-obsessed socialite mother. Python comrade Michael Palin plays against type as Jack, a friend of Sam who has climbed to a very important position in the Ministry. Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm, and Jim Broadbent all have small but very funny roles.
The worst actor in the entire film is probably Greist, though. She's absolutely terrible, and Gilliam did right by leaving parts of her work on the cutting room floor. She's wooden, uninteresting...you don't really comprehend what Sam sees in her but subconcious similarities (another reason why Pryce is brilliant...he picked up Greist's slack). Plus, she can't do realistic line delivery to save her soul. Why the studio wouldn't let Gilliam cast Ellen Barkin is beyond me.
Additionally, the movie drags just a bit in the final act with a dream sequence that is visually intriguing but just keeps going... It was a lot of good stuff but it was too much for a climax. Gilliam could have lost a lot of it in the editing booth, and nobody would know any better (and I'd have a review one paragraph shorter).
Brazil overcomes all of its flaws, though, simply because everything else is so amazing. Everything it does well, it does perfectly. Even the tiniest little details are brilliant. In fact, just the movie's background minutiae is better than a lot of films. That says quite a bit.
So...now that you're going to see this movie as soon as possible, what is the best format to see it in? Why, DVD, of course! "But Nate, which DVD? There's a cheap one from Universal and this big blue expensive one from Criterion." Get the Criterion boxed set. It may seem like a chunk out of your wallet, but it's worth every penny. I haven't even gotten to the second disc yet, and I'm very happy with it. It has Gilliam's 142 minute director's cut, plus the studio's 94 minute happy version, which is by all accounts inferior, and merely included to show what a great guy Gilliam is and what stinkers the people at Universal can be. Plus, there's two documentaries and reams of supplemental information.
I'm not the kind of guy to put The Replacements or The Fast and the Furious in my top 5. The placement of those films is quite nearly set in stone, so you can trust me that when I say that Brazil is my fourth favorite movie of all time, it's not a statement to take lightly. I can't guarantee you'll love it (I'm surprised to discover people who hate it), but it will certainly not be boring by any means.
Reviewed By: Nate Yapp