Terry Gilliam has made quite a career out of high-concept ideas that don’t look like they would work on paper, and even when fully realised don’t seem to quite come together, yet are somehow original and inventive enough that you can’t help but admire the miracle they even got made in the first place. Brazil is probably the classic example of this – who on earth would green-light a “Monty Python meets Nineteen Eighty-Four” pitch now? – and is still arguably his best film.¬†Like much of his other work, the troubled production of the film is just as fascinating (probably best summarised in the wonderful Jack Mathews book The Battle of Brazil), and one of the classic examples of an artist struggling to get his vision realised against the crushing bureaucracy of his employers. In that way, Gilliam’s fight to get his cut of the film made and released echoes the struggles of his protagonist to express his individualism against the oppressive state he lives in.

The smartest thing about it (and something that often hampers other Gilliam projects) is its script. Working with the great British playwright Tom Stoppard, Gilliam took George Orwell’s classic and prescient novel and spun it with his freewheeling imagination-gone-wild ethos, creating a dystopian future that was a lot more fun than its creative inspirations yet somehow also more serious. He later referred to it as the middle part of his “Imagination Trilogy” (sandwiched between the less-grounded but still enjoyable Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and would revisit its satirical futurism with the outstanding 12 Monkeys. It’s interesting that Gilliam claims to have never read Nineteen Eighty-Four – while there are unquestionable similarities to it (probably planted by Stoppard), it crucially veers away from Orwell’s pessimism when embarking on typical Gilliamesque flights of fancy (except for its final, haunting shot – which the director fought hard to keep).

Its most impressive feature however is probably its extraordinary¬†production design and set decoration, by Norman Garwood and Maggie Gray. Rather than simple futurism, the world of Brazil is a curious mix of futuristic and retro – complex and baffling new technology sits alongside reassuringly familiar contraptions that make it seem weirdly nostalgic. A huge influence on other filmmakers (Alex Proyas, Darren Aronofsky, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro began their careers homaging it), it draws from a varied cinematic heritage of film noir, early Fritz Lang like Metropolis and M, the lighting and set designs of German Expressionism and direct references to Battleship Potemkin¬†(the Odessa Steps sequence is given a nod) and The Third Man (a character is called Harvey Lime). The rest is an extraordinary mix of attention to detail and vibrant use of lighting and set design, combined with the technical style Gilliam has always employed – tilted dutch angles and very wide lenses to distort the width of actors’ faces. It still looks truly unique to this day.

Clever, subversive reinvention of the ideas and themes from Nineteen Eighty-Four10
The camera movement, production design, costume design, in fact the entire look of the film10
The catchy title song9
The usual Gilliam crazy mess8
The fact that Gilliam "won" by getting his final cut released, even though his protagonist Sam Lowry "loses"10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
9Overall Score

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