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Has anybody seen Sam Lowry? Remembering Brazil

Brazil / Terry Gilliam / New Criterion Blu-ray release

Jonathan Pryce in Brazil (1985)

It’s amusing to reflect on the fact that while Terry Gilliam was battling in LA to get his 1985 movie Brazil released, it was shown without fuss or fanfare in one of London’s premier cinemas – the Odeon Leicester Square.

I know this because as a 15 year old I saw Brazil in that very cinema in 1985 when it was first released. My parents came out bemused, possibly expecting something traditional with a Hollywood narrative, but I was enthralled by Gilliam’s visual feast – the massive screen at the Odeon serving only to magnify the Director’s achievements.

It was to have a big impact on me – Jonathan Pryce’s superb performance as everyman Sam Lowry, Robert De Niro almost unrecognisable in his balaclava and Katherine Helmond (from US TV’s Soap) as Sam’s mother (memorably getting her face stretched and pulled in all directions).

Having read Orwell’s 1984 only a year earlier (in 1984…) I could see the influence on Gilliam’s dark dystopian society, and apparently 1984 1/2 was an early contender for the name of the movie (a nod of course, to both 1984 and Fellini’s 8 1/2).

Ten years later in 1995, I did some studying at the Panico film school in London and (unbeknownst to me) a certain Julian Doyle helped run the course. Julian was the film editor on Brazil and he also directed the memorable Kate Bush video Cloudbusting (the one with Donald Sutherland). As both a big Kate fan and a big fan of Brazil, this was an exciting development (I would later find out via the Milan soundtrack – not released until the 1990s – that Kate had actually sung the theme tune to Brazil, which went unused in the film).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1KFEdtymyw

Back to Julian Doyle, and naturally, I pressed him for some nuggets of information on Brazil and he showed some clips explaining and deconstructing some of the scenes. One thing that came up was that Kim Greist’s performance as Sam Lowry’s dream girl was cut significantly, Gilliam not apparently not too impressed by her performance.

Original Criterion DVD

This is where the Criterion edition of Brazil comes in. When I realised back in 2000 that they had released a special three disc DVD box set that not only contained a slightly extended director’s cut of the film, but also a completely different edit of the film known as the ‘Love Conquers All’ version – I knew I just had to have it. Luckily I had a region-free DVD player and imported this Brazil release to the UK.

Brazil / Original Criterion DVD box set from 1999

The three DVDs from Criterion’s original Brazil box set

Brazil / Original Criterion DVD box set from 1999

The ‘Love Conquers All’ version (on the third disc) is horrible as a film, but fascinating as an example of how non-creative executives can get it so wrong. It is effectively Universal’s cut with a happy ending, and alternate versions of some scenes, major cuts and other scenes inserted (Gilliam was not involved). Critic David Morgan provides a commentary on this version to help explain the differences as we go along. A documentary called The Battle For Brazil appeared on the second DVD, with the movie proper on the first DVD.

The original box set had great content, but wasn’t perfect. It was non-anamorphic for a start, the print wasn’t particularly clean and it had no surround sound audio.

Brazil / Terry Gilliam / New Criterion Blu-ray release

New Blu-ray release

The good news is that on 4 December Criterion release Brazil on a two disc Blu-ray set. It comes with a restored digital hi-def transfer of Gilliam’s 142 minute director’s cut (approved by the man himself) as well as DTS-HD surround audio.

All the extras from the original three-DVD box set are present including the ‘Love Conquers All’ version of the movie and the documentaries and commentaries. Highly recommended for fans of Gilliam and Brazil as well as any students of cinema who interested in the studio system and the politics that go with it.

Note: This Blu-ray is locked to Region A – so you will need multi-region capability to watch outside America, Canada and East Asia.

Contents of Blu-ray

  • • Restored high-definition digital transfer of Terry Gilliam’s 142-minute director’s cut, approved by Gilliam, with DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • • Audio commentary by Gilliam
  • • What Is “Brazil”?, Rob Hedden’s on-set documentary
  • • The Production Notebook, a collection of interviews and video essays, featuring a trove of Brazil-iana from Gilliam’s personal collection
  • • The Battle of “Brazil,” a documentary about the film’s contentious release, hosted by Jack Mathews and based on his book of the same name
  • • “Love Conquers All” version, the studio’s 94-minute, happy-ending cut of Brazil, with commentary by Brazil expert David Morgan
  • • Trailer
  • • PLUS: An essay by Jack Matthews on the DVD edition and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Sterritt on the Blu-ray edition

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