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BRAZIL (CRITERION)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Kim Greist
Director:  Terry Gilliam
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  142 Minutes
Release Date:  July 13, 1999

Film ****

Brazil is about as unique a motion picture as you can experience. No other film quite has the look--a "retro future" look by setting it in the future, but creating the futuristic world with old and familiar items. Check out the computers, which have manual typewriter style keyboards and tiny 50's style television screens enlarged via magnifying glasses. No other film has quite the combination of comedy and nightmarish vision as this one has. Essentially, the film will make you laugh and fear at the same time.

The movie opens "somewhere in the 20th century" in an Orwellian world where machines and technology seem to have overtaken human significance. Our protagonist is Sam Lowery (a terrific Jonathan Pryce) who, like we the audience, seems out of place in this society. His Walter Mitty style dreams make him a winged, free hero, but even they become symbolic of his stifling world as he battles the forces that close in on him. His real world centers around a job at the Ministry of Information, basically an inquisition, but with proper British manners. Their job is to extract information from suspected terrorists, and they do this by...well, you'll find out. And to add insult to injury, persons being interrogated are charged for the information retrieval process ("If you don't confess soon, you'll ruin your credit rating").

It's difficult to sum up the plot of Brazil in a few sentences. It mainly revolves around Sam finding that the girl of his dream world is real, but learns she is a terrorist suspect. Does he do his job and bring her in? Or does he follow his heart, and is there any hope of reward in following one's heart in such a world? To give away more would be wrong, but the script is terrific, filled with great lines and Terry Gilliam's style of humor.

The real genius of the movie is not so much the story, but the frighteningly real world that Terry Gilliam has created. This is an ugly, joyless society, and we root for poor Sam to overcome it.

Video ****

This is a stellar transfer from Criterion.  I had hoped for an improvement over Universal’s disc, but I didn’t expect it could be as good as this.  The images are so sharp, crisp and clean, and the colors so bright and natural, I found myself noticing many details in the film I’d never noticed before.  Sadly, it’s not anamorphic, but it’s still a triumph of quality.  This disc would be worth the extra money just for this transfer.  The film boasts the correct running length of 142 minutes, which is actually the same as the Universal disc, who had the incorrect running time printed on the box. 

Audio ***

The soundtrack is Dolby stereo, and it’s a good, clean, dynamic mix that shows off Michael Kamen’s terrific score.  No complaints!

Features ****

There are actually TWO discs’ worth of features.  Disc 2 contains the supplemental material, including a documentary “What is Brazil?” that features interviews with Gilliam and most of his cast and crew, and an hour long special made by Criterion documenting the famous “Battle of Brazil”, where Terry Gilliam took drastic and calculated risks to preserve the integrity of his vision.  Also on this disc are various production notes, storyboards, script notes and interviews with the writers, and some special effects shot details.  There’s also interviews with Michael Kamen, the production designer, the costume designer, plus a trailer and publicity and production stills.  Disc 3 is fascinating…it’s the Sid Sheinberg cut of the movie that Terry Gilliam fought against, which is completely re-edited, cut by about 40 minutes, and has a happy ending.  It’s hard to watch because it so violated Gilliam’s vision, but it’s intriguing to note the many differences, and really brings out an appreciation for his fight against the system.  Oh, yes, disc 1 has a full length commentary from an enthusiastic and animated Gilliam.  An absolutely incredible and well designed package of features make this Criterion’s single best product to date.

Summary:

Brazil won’t please all audiences, nor was it intended to.  There are many movie lovers and critics alike who have never quite gotten into Terry Gilliam’s bizarre vision of a darkly comic nightmare.  But for his true fans, and for those who love this movie as much as I do, there may never be a better way to experience it than this remarkable DVD package.