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Masterful “Brazil” DVD accentuates classic

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film “Brazil” was one of the most misunderstood pictures of its time, but its reputation has grown over the ensuing decades, and it is now regarded as one of the finest pictures of the 1980s. Like Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” it depicts a dystopian future that creepily resembles modern times, but it replaces that film’s noirish tendencies with an absurdist vision of a bureaucratic dictatorship.

The Criterion version of “Brazil” is Gilliam’s original director’s cut, which runs 142 minutes and combines footage from both the American and the European releases. Gilliam is perhaps best known as a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python (he co-directed both “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”), though “Brazil” is very much his brainchild.

Gilliam had control over the film and arranged a 142-minute cut, which was badly received by Universal executives, who then cut nearly an hour out of the film, to a running time of 94 minutes. This cut, commonly referred to as the “Love Conquers All” version, is available on the third disc of the box set. Radically different from Gilliam’s director’s cut, it demonstrates just how much effect editing can have on a picture.

Ultimately, however, it’s easy to see why Universal was so apprehensive. “Brazil” is a complex, insular, often difficult picture about a bleak totalitarian future (though the film takes place “sometime in the 20th century”), which was a shocking shift from the absurdist comedy Gilliam imbued in the Monty Python films. Despite frequent flights of fancy, “Brazil” is mostly a downbeat film, with pointed satire and jagged political and social commentary – it’s hard to explain how a film can be whimsical and cynical at once, but “Brazil” combines the mentality of Orwell with the creativity of “Star Wars”-era Lucas. It’s also a maddening, oft-brilliant picture that stutters at times over the course of its two and a half hours, though the “Love Conquers All” cut demonstrates that shortening the film would only have a detrimental effect.

What makes “Brazil” so powerful is not only Gilliam’s creative vision, as stunning and encompassing as that is, but the talent with which the director was surrounded. The script was co-written by Tom Stoppard (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Shakespeare in Love”), and the film stars Jonathan Pryce (“Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and prominently features Robert DeNiro. The creative production design is one of the movie’s most appealing elements, though Gilliam admits on the DVD that some considered it a sensation overload.

“Brazil” was originally released by Criterion back in 1999 (spine No. 51), but has recently been re-released. The new release is, in many ways, the same as the old, with one major difference. The original transfer was not anamorphic (meaning it did not “stretch” properly to fill widescreen televisions), which means a lot more in 2006 than it did in 1999.

According to Criterion, the new release has an “all-new, restored high-definition transfer, supervised and approved by director Terry Gilliam, with a remastered Dolby stereo surround soundtrack.” In other words, “Brazil” looks and sounds great, which is really a necessity in a film that is so visually and aurally loaded.

The DVD is available in two versions, a single-disc version, and a three-disc “Ultimate Special Edition Box.” Though the three-disc version may be slight overkill for casual fans of the film, it’s a must for both fans of Gilliam and film enthusiasts. The most substantial special feature is the 56 minute documentary “The Battle of Brazil: A Video History,” which explores the controversy that surrounded the film.

Both versions of “Brazil” contain a feature-length audio commentary by Gilliam, which is interesting and insightful – it’s obvious that the director takes great pride in the film.

The second disc also contains a thirty minute on-set documentary called “What is Brazil?” as well as storyboards, drawings, stills, behind-the-scenes footage, video interviews and the original trailer. The 94-minute “Love Conquers All” cut contains a feature-length audio essay by journalist David Morgan, who retreads a lot of ground from “The Battle of Brazil” in explaining the controversy over the film and its numerous cuts.

The packaging, an often overlooked aspect of a DVD’s presentation, is also excellent. The box set comes in a slipcase that depicts clouds and the neon logo for the film. Inside the case are three individual keepcases with varying angles of the same photograph. There is also a small booklet that contains an essay by Jack Mathews, movie critic and author of “Battle of Brazil.”

“Brazil” is an essential piece of cinema. Named the Los Angeles Critics Circle Film of the Year in 1985, it has since become regarded as a classic, with Time magazine recently declaring it one of the 100 greatest films of all time. An imaginative and creative examination of politics and society, it remains a high-water mark for its director, and 1980s cinema. While the single-disc edition may be enough for most, the lavish box set is, for once, an “Ultimate Special Edition” that lives up to its name.