That element carries through to an extent in Brazil courtesy of the fantasies experienced by our meek bureaucrat protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), including dreams of romance, adventure, and the ability to fly. However, this is all framed within a dystopian nightmare straight out of George Orwell as his stage-controlled life becomes an escalating parade of grotesque misunderstandings and violence.
The writing of Brazil was a team effort between Gilliam, actor and writer Charles McKeown (who also worked with Gilliam on 1988's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, with early uncredited contributions from novelist and Jabberwocky co-scenarist Charles Alverson. "It's Franz Kafka meets Walter Mitty" was the succinct description Gilliam provided in the making-of documentary shot on the set at the time by Rob Hedden, which also tried to unravel the meaning of the title (which ties in with the song "Aquarela do Brasil," which was reworked for the soundtrack by Michael Kamen and Kate Bush).
The cast of Brazil features some familiar faces from previous Gilliam projects including fellow Pythonite Michael Palin as Sam's successful but soulless friend Jack Lint and Time Bandits (1981) alumni Ian Holm and Katherine Helmond as Sam's boss and mother, respectively. Perhaps the most surprising name among the cast is Robert De Niro, who had originally wanted Palin's role but was cast in the role of helpful terrorist Harry Tuttle; he shot his small but crucial role in between the filming of two other mammoth European productions, Once upon a Time in America (1984) and The Mission (1986).
Brazil was picked up for international distribution by 20th Century Fox (who had just tried and failed to court Gilliam to direct Enemy Mine) and presented in Gilliam's original 142-minute cut in many territories in early 1985. However, trouble began brewing immediately with American distributor Universal Pictures (under ownership by MCA, Inc. at the time) and its President and COO, Sid Sheinberg. A pivotal figure in the New Hollywood wave, Sheinberg was responsible for giving Steven Spielberg his big break on Jaws (1975) and would shepherd through many of the director's subsequent features at Universal.
The unusual and often jarring "art house" tone of Brazil proved too much for Sheinberg, who wanted a more commercial title and demanded extensive cuts and a total reworking of the film's melancholy ending (which is at least more positive than the outcome of Orwell's novel). Oddly enough, at the same time Sheinberg was also grappling with an overhaul of Ridley Scott's Legend, which ultimately reached American theaters in a radically altered and rescored version. Universal enlisted editors to rework the film according to the theme of "love conquers all," with Gilliam refusing to cooperate as his work was reedited into a much shorter rendition with a stitched-together happy ending. (This much-derided variant, which aired in some syndicated TV markets in the 1980s, can still be seen on the Criterion Collection home video release, for those who are curious.)
After a spate of furious memos and a long period of delays, Gilliam caused waves in the film industry by taking out a trade ad in Variety asking Sheinberg when he would get around to releasing Brazil. Frustrated by the continuing war, Gilliam arranged to screen the film covertly for college students and, due to increasing demand, L.A. critics without the studio's blessing. In a surprising twist, the film was lauded by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association as the best film of 1985, also nabbing nods for director and screenplay. Gilliam had been contracted to deliver a film no longer than two hours and fifteen minutes, so his own shortened American cut (clocking in at 132 minutes) was the one released at the end of 1985.
The general critical reception was actually mixed, ranging from ecstatic raves to baffled confusion (with critic Roger Ebert famously falling into the latter category). However, the film's reputation has only continued to grow with each passing year, even as Gilliam went on to fight future Quixotic battles on such productions as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the disaster-plagued production of the unfinished The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Amusingly, one of his most popular films, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), also wound up being released by Universal after Sheinberg's departure.
Now regarded as one of the pivotal films of the 1980s, Brazil remains a fascinating anomaly in film history and an eccentric, still astonishing case study of a worthy film surviving and taking flight against a seemingly insurmountable situation torn straight from its own plotline.
By Nathaniel Thompson