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Brazil (1985)

Footage courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Main image of Brazil (1985)
35mm, colour, 142 mins
DirectorTerry Gilliam
Production CompanyEmbassy International Pictures
ProducerArnon Milchan
ScreenplayTerry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown
PhotographyRoger Pratt
MusicMichael Kamen

Cast: Jonathan Pryce (Sam Lowry), Robert De Niro (Archibald 'Harry' Tuttle), Katherine Helmond (Mrs Ida Lowry), Ian Holm (Mr Kurtzmann), Bob Hoskins (Spoor), Michael Palin (Jack Lint)

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A bleak vision of a future where bureaucrats have the upper hand and 'miscreants' face torture. A man from the Ministry of Information pursues the girl of his dreams.

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Set in a totalitarian state 'somewhere in the twentieth century' but filmed in 1984, Terry Gilliam's masterpiece is a nightmarish fantasy indebted to the satiric films of Lindsay Anderson (especially Britannia Hospital, 1982), the novels of Franz Kafka, and of course to George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four (an especially resonant text as that year came around, and a more conventional film version of which was made by Michael Radford at the time).

Orwell famously settled on the title by inverting '48', the year he wrote the book. If Nineteen Eighty-Four comments on the present through the future, Brazil affects what Gilliam called 'retro-futurism' to satirise modern Britain. Design, props and wardrobe mix elements from the 1930s, Dick Barton raincoats and trilbys, through post-WWII ration-book austerity, 1950s Stalinist architecture, all the way up to computers built on to electric typewriters.

This being Britain, the future, or alternate reality, Gilliam envisages in Brazil doesn't quite work. The rampant technology which bursts out of every corner of the screen is cobbled together from old bits and pieces which don't quite fit. The state apparatus is the same. The Ministry of Information may be omniscient and even omnipotent, but it's definitely not infallible, as poor Buttle discovers when he's arrested on the strength of a misprint. In this nightmare of bureaucracy run mad, Gilliam's hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a clerk intelligent enough to work the system, but who prefers to keep his head down and dream. Timid and complacent, Lowry is a more compromised figure than most of Gilliam's imaginative heroes - like Munchausen in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), or Cole (Bruce Willis) in 12 Monkeys (US, 1995). The film's true hero is the subversive guerilla plumber Tuttle, played with aplomb by Robert De Niro.

Produced for $15 million, the film was distributed by Twentieth Century Fox in a 143 minute cut everywhere except the US, where Universal held the rights - and where studio boss Sidney Sheinberg prepared his own 94 minute version, complete with a happy ending. With the film-makers and the studio at loggerheads, Gilliam eventually went public, taking out a full page advertisement in Variety reading "Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie Brazil? Terry Gilliam". The strategy worked, although the compromise 132 minute US version failed to take off at the box office. Nevertheless the reputation of this dark, glittering work continues to grow.

Tom Charity

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Video Clips
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)
Gilliam, Terry (1940-)
Holm, Sir Ian (1931-)
Hoskins, Bob (1942-)
Palin, Michael (1943-)
Pryce, Jonathan (1947-)
Stoppard, Tom (1937-)
Vaughan, Peter (1923-)