The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2006 Return to Table of Contents
Casino Royale
Tomorrow Technology
DVD Playback
A Nightmare on Elm S
Books in Review
ASC Close-Up
Brazil (1985)
1- and 3-Disc Editions
1.78:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
The Criterion Collection,
$29.95 (1-Disc) and $59.95 (3-Disc)

It’s Christmas time in the city — the ominous, Orwellian urbania of Terry Gilliams’ Brazil. Shoppers clutter the streets hunting for bargains while drone-like workers march to their jobs. The jammed avenues, stuffed with government propaganda and holiday billboards, are frantic with action and heavily patrolled by authorities to keep citizens on the straight and narrow. Ubiquitous televisions run advertisements while Christmas carols pour from public-address systems. Occasionally, a terrorist bomb goes off, throwing the streets into a panic until government agents restore order.

During one particular commotion, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) wakes from his recurring, blissful dream of a mysterious, beautiful woman. Lowry’s boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), calls to explain a bureaucratic error in the processing of a potential criminal, Archibald Tuttle. As a result, one Archibald Buttle has been wrongfully incarcerated. Assigned with rectifying the Tuttle/Buttle mishap, Lowry must contend with his class-conscious mother (Katherine Helmond); a mysterious plumber (Robert De Niro) who claims to be Tuttle; and Jill (Kim Greist), Buttle’s angry neighbor, who also happens to be the woman in Lowry’s dream. When he pursues Jill, Lowry unwittingly finds himself a suspected terrorist, the target of a Draconian government that believes “suspicion breeds confidence.”

Gilliam’s futuristic nightmare of misanthropy and bureaucracy was photographed by Roger Pratt, BSC (Mona Lisa, The End of the Affair), who had previously worked with the director on Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and the short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance. (He has since reteamed with Gilliam on The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys.) For Brazil, Pratt established a noirish atmosphere sparked with neon colors and stark lighting that is often juxtaposed with numerous, fanciful dream sequences rendered in a lush, colorful palette. The cinematographer used wide-angle lenses in close shots to establish an oppressive, discomfiting visual tone.

Brazil made its DVD debut in 1998 with a disc from Universal Home Video, but one year later, The Criterion Collection released the picture in a DVD boxed set, an update of the company’s sensational 1996 laserdisc set, that was much more impressive. Criterion recently issued a new transfer of the film in both three-disc and single-disc packages.

Criterion’s 1999 transfer of Gilliam’s 142-minute cut of the film was good and generally faithful to Pratt’s work, but it sported a 1.85:1 frame, occasionally lacked sharpness, and was not anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. This new transfer is widescreen-enhanced and clearly benefits from the advances made in digital-transfer technology over the last seven years. Colors seem a shade deeper and more realistic, and more detail can be found in shadows and darkness. Also, a slightly different aspect ratio has been used — 1.78:1 — which adds a sliver of picture information to the lower portion of the screen.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound seems slightly more pronounced on this DVD but closely resembles the track on the 1999 disc. As with Criterion’s earlier release, the film is accompanied by one supplement, a busy audio commentary by Gilliam. Recorded for the 1996 laserdisc, the commentary sheds light on many of Brazil’s technical aspects and features anecdotes about Gilliam’s infamous rift with studio executives over the film’s final cut. The track is informative, but Gilliam often adopts a self-congratulatory, embittered tone that seems inappropriate.

Buyers of the three-disc boxed set will find an abundance of supplemental materials — all of the extras featured on the 1999 set, including an excellent, 60-minute documentary by Jack Matthews called “The Battle of Brazil: A Video History.” This features interviews with Gilliam and several studio executives who were part of an effort to truncate Brazil and drastically change the ending to make it a crowd-pleaser. Both parties make surprisingly solid cases for themselves, making the well-known outcome of the conflict more interesting.

Also included among the three discs is Love Conquers All, the shocking, 94-minute cut of the film created by Universal that features a distinctly different tone and a ridiculous happy ending. Although the feature is presented full-frame and lacks the visual punch of the “real” film transfer, it’s an amazing example of how another party can put the same material to radically different use. The set also features an on-set promotional documentary called “What is Brazil?” that features numerous participants. There are also video interviews with many principals, stills, publicity materials, the theatrical trailer, an essay and other supplements.

Criterion’s choice to update Brazil with a new transfer seems worthwhile for such a popular film. This edition will certainly please fans of the film and garner new ones. Although the film might feel slightly dated today, most viewers will still revel in its final reels. The painful sequences featuring Michael Palin, the last performer one might cast as a villain, expertly convey Brazil’s frightening and ironic tone.

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