A masterpiece to some, a source of utter befuddlement to others, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil has been dividing opinions now for over 25 years. Now it reaches Blu-ray, which is certainly a good way to show off the film’s extraordinary production design.
Set in a dystopian mix of the future and the past, Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, a man trying to live a quiet life as part of a vast bureaucracy, but who has extravagant dreams where he’s a flying, monster-slaying hero. During his waking life though, he’s mainly trying to be efficient and stop his plastic surgery obsessed mother from pushing him around.
All that changes though when a mistake causes the wrong person to be brought in to ‘help the Ministry Of Information with their enquiries’. The person ends up dead and when Sam tries to sort out the bureaucratic side of the mistake, he meets a woman who’s the spitting image of a girl who is literally from his dreams. Things then begin to spiral out of control until Sam is an enemy of the state, all of which has to do with ‘terrorists’ who’ve been setting off a series of explosions.
Brazil is undoubtedly a strange film that defies any attempt to completely decode it. It touches on numerous subjects and certainly makes you think, but every time you might think you’ve worked out exactly what it means (beyond the banal, that is), it throws up a roadblock. This seems to be deliberate, as the sole special feature, a 1985 featurette called ‘What is Brazil?’, is largely a series of interviews with everyone from Terry Gilliam to Jonathan Pryce saying they’re not precisely sure what the film is about.
That’s far from saying it’s meaningless though, as Brazil delves into materialism, the absurd and most importantly the problems of faceless governments and their monolithic bureaucracies. Where it’s most successful though – as so often with Gilliam’s movies – is in terms of its visual style. It is a singular vision of a world that’s both very familiar and yet very strange. Most filmmakers make their dystopias look too neat, so that even the dirt looks carefully arranged, but what Gilliam has always had a talent for is creating fantastical visions that are highly stylised and yet feel real and lived in. Brazil is an entire world of the industrial and the mundane, the past and the future, where all sorts of disparate yet familiar elements get fitted together into something that is remarkably cohesive and yet utterly absurd all at once.
Few films look like Brazil, and even if you don’t end up thinking it’s as profound as some suggest it is, it is incredible to look at. As you’d expect, the production design looks very good in HD. There is some grain, as you’d expect for a movie that’s been kicking around for 26 years, but the step up from the DVD is very noticeable. It’s a slight shame that the wonderful special effects of Jonathan Pryce’s dreams doesn’t look a little more sparkly, but that’s more an artefact of how pre-digital effects had to be made, rather than a flaw in the print.
I do have a sneaking suspicion that Brazil wouldn’t be as well remembered now if it weren’t for Universal Studio head Sid Sheinberg’s attempts to chop it to bits in the 80s (which thankfully we in the UK managed to escape from), and also the movie’s wonderful ending. The last half an hour is wonderfully pitched, and while the rest of the movie is full of far more woolly thinking than many suggest, the ending pull things back into focus and humanises it. Gilliam’s problem has always been that his breathtaking flights of fancy tend to get in the telling a wholly satisfying story, but here his control over the close of the film ensures that it all works extremely well.
As mentioned, there’s only one real special feature, so it’s not particularly impressive on that score, but the featurette is interesting. This Blu-ray release isn’t going to convince any Gilliam doubters, but fans will undoubtedly enjoy the sharper visuals. However it does still leave the question qhy the UK has never had a proper features packed edition of the movie. The US has had a DVD Criterion Release, but Britain is yet to get a really good version on the Special Features front.
Overall Verdict: Still amazing to look at, and even more so in HD, Gilliam’s films may be very strange but it’s still a visual treat that’ll leave you thinking.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac