Brazil (1985): Terry Gilliam’s Darkly Humorous Satire, Starring Jonathan Price and Robert De Niro

In Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s darkly humorous futuristic satire, Jonathan Pryce plays a mild-mannered clerk named Sam Lowry, who’s stuck with a boring job at a bureaucratic society, dominated by machines and machine-like individuals.

Lowry survives by abiding by the rules, doing exactly as he’s told, while spending quality time in his own fantasy world.  However, he is unwittingly drawn into mysterious intrigue, first by a vigilant repairman (cast-against-type Robert De Niro), and later when he becomes involved with his object of desire, a woman of his dreams, actually revolutionary who plans a radical terrorist act, blowing up the world.

The film is influenced not only by Kafka’s “The Trial” and George Orwell’s “1984,” but also by more recent works and movies, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” The best definition I have heard of “Brazil” is from the French directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Delicatessen,” “The City of Lost Children”), who have labeled it “retro-futurism.”


“Brazil” is a spectacular mess, and a messy spectacular, but it’s worth seeing just for the sake of getting a glimpse into Gilliam’s unbridled cinematic imagination, which runs wild to say the least.  Gilliam’s visual fantasy is excessive in scope, running time, and effects.  Lacking unity or coherence, the text is largely composed of outlandish sequences and special effects.  In broad strokes, the movie paints a chaotic, nasty universe, defined by inventive settings and some indelible images.

The Oscar-nominated script, credited to Giliam, British playwright Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown, is occasionally witty, alternately funny and sad, and ultimately too rambling to allow viewers’ sustained engagement.  It’s definitely a film in which individual parts are more powerful and more stunning than the overall structure.

“Brazil” won the Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (of which I am a voting member), and was nominated for two Oscars.

Despite positive critical reaction, though, the movie was a flop at the box-office.


Oscar Nominations: 2

Screenplay (Original): Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown

Art direction-set decoration: Norman Garwood; Maggie Gray


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Original Screenplay Oscar went to Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley, and Pamela Wallace for “Witness,” and the Art Direction Award to “Out of Africa.”

Two films in 1985 were nominated for 11 Oscars: Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa,” which swept the awards, including Best Picture, and Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” which lost in each of its 11 categories.

The other three Best Picture nominees were of a smaller-scale: Peter Weir’s “Witness,” with 8 nods, John Huston’s “Prizzi’s Honor,” also 8, and the indie “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which brought Best Actor Oscar to William Hurt.