Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

In the dystopian masterpiece Brazil, Jonathan Pryce plays a daydreaming everyman who finds himself caught in the soul-crushing gears of a nightmarish bureaucracy. This cautionary tale by Terry Gilliam, one of the great films of the 1980s, has come to be esteemed alongside antitotalitarian works by the likes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And in terms of set design, cinematography, music, and effects, Brazil is a nonstop dazzler.

– The Criterion

“Brazil is only a state of mind.” Aiming to create a satire of bureaucracy and modern life, Terry Gilliam, who later directed 12 Monkeys (1995) and The Brothers Grimm (2005), made this dazzling masterpiece that puzzled a lot of his audiences for a long time. It is always said that the overall theme of Brazil is easier to catch, but the details and bridges between plots are almost impossible to be fully understood. Yet because of this, Brazil is one of those films that never fails to make it to the list of “100 weird movies.” Beware that this is not at all an undermining statement of the surprising visual effects that Brazil had. Even though digital technology at the time was capable of handling some of the visual effects that Gilliam designed for Brazil, he decided to put on the magic show using interesting camera angles, high-contrast picture composition and unique filming locations. Extended long takes and tracking shots were the shiniest stars among all the dazzling visual effects that Brazil has to offer: they make this monochromatic movie sparkle. Only in this film would you see an extended shot done in a large, deep cooling tower, panning from the feet of the protagonist all the way to the top of the mill. Other than filming techniques, traditional special effects props such as miniatures and masks are used in Brazil to create the sense of “crappy effects” in order to emphasize the mocking surrealism.

BRAZIL Production Design
Sketches by Norman Garwood: Sam’s Office

One may not be surprised that Gilliam was a member of the British surreal comedy group Monty Python, for his black humor is prevalent in Brazil. Actually, the name “Brazil” has nothing to do with the country Brazil besides the name of the film’s theme song “Aquarela do Brasil.” The idea of the film started off as jigsaw puzzles of a story about three men: a man who works in the Ministry, a man who dreams a lot, and a man in love. The puzzles took three other men, director Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown to make sense out of it and turn it into a movie. Notice that the story of Brazil was not set to happen in the future: it was said to take place in the 20th century. It was a pure satire of the “mindless hustle and bustle of bureaucracy” of our age. The picture composition and costumes constantly remind us of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), especially the scene in which the protagonist Sam Lowry starts a fight with a colleague at work who shares the same desk with him through a hole in the wall. Not to mention the classic scene in which Sam’s mother is having a “plastic surgery:” pulling together the flabby skin on her face and wrapping it up in plastic. The ridiculous visuals not only make Brazil lively, but also push the audience to deliberately think about the obviously irrationality in reality.

Film reviewers always speak with jealousy when mentioning the budget of Brazil: 15 million, the same budget that Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle) had, is quite a satisfying amount of money for filmmaking in 1985. The filming process alone took nine months in total, even though Gilliam started off with a 20-week schedule. “My lasting impression of the making of Brazil was feeling that we would never finish,” said Gilliam in one of his interviews in the mid-nineties. Fortunately, Gilliam managed to finish this visual wonder of Brazil.

BRAZIL Production Design Sketches by Norman Garwood: Jill’s Flat and the Buttle Residence


  • Gilliam talked about Brazil in Film 2011 With Claudia Winkleman @ BBC One
  • Gilliam talked about the release of Brazil at a forum of British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in 2009
  • The Saga of BRAZIL: Terry Gilliam discusses the making and near un-making of his dystopian fantasy in a 1986 interview
  • Capturing a Brazil Look: An Interview With Production Designer Norman Garwood