My Shame List: 'Brazil' (1985)

There's a special kind of shame in not having seen the movies described as "cult favorites." By definition, these are not movies that most people have seen. Instead, they're movies that the right people have seen. And if you haven't seen them, well, you must not be one of the right people. It's like not attending a party that turned out to be really, really cool.

"Brazil" appears on all the lists of "best cult films" and "best sci-fi films" and "best movies that Terry Gilliam actually succeeded in making." I'd seen nearly everything else of his -- I even saw "The Brothers Grimm," for crying out loud -- yet "Brazil" had eluded me. Now, at long last, this error is rectified.

My Shame List #6: 'Brazil'

The shaming.

(This week's guest scolder: Jacob Hall, of Movies.com and Screen Crush!)

"It's okay, Eric. It's okay that you haven't seen 'Brazil.' It's okay that you haven't seen Terry Gilliam's deranged, hilarious, moving and heartbreaking science-fiction-comedy-satire that somehow manages to successfully blend Monty Python, George Orwell and Federico Fellini while telling a story that's only become more timely and terrifying in a post-9/11 world. It's okay that you haven't seen the best movie ever made about the power of dreams and how imagination is not only our greatest escape, but our greatest weapon in the face of bleak hopelessness. It's okay that you haven't seen my ALL-TIME FAVORITE MOVIE, Eric. Really. It's okay. (Just make sure you watch the full-length director's cut, because if you plan to watch the shorter 'Love Conquers All' version, I'll have to murder you. For reals.)"

Why hadn't I seen it before?

For a long time, I had "Brazil" in the same mental category as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Blade Runner," that category being Movies That I Need to See But I Keep Putting It Off Because I'm Not Sure Which Version I'm Supposed to Watch. I solved that problem with the other two movies years ago, but "Brazil" remained unconquered, largely due to inertia on my part. Surely I represent every filmmaker's nightmare: you make a movie, then studio interference results in multiple versions existing, which leads to confused viewers choosing not to watch any of them. Sorry, Terry!

How much of it had I seen?

None of it. I didn't even know what the title meant. I mean, I knew what the word "Brazil" meant (it's a country), but I didn't know how it related to the film, which I assumed was not set in Brazil.

What did I already know about it before I watched it?

- There's a famous image of Katherine Helmond's face being stretched out that I'd seen many times. I didn't know the context, only that I loved Katherine Helmond from "Soap" (OK, and "Who's the Boss?") and was interested to learn why her face was being stretched.

- The original version was 142 minutes long, and that's how 20th Century Fox released it overseas. But the film had a different distributor in the U.S. -- Universal Pictures -- and studio honcho Sid Sheinberg wanted a more mainstream product with a happier ending. (In other words, he wanted something other than "Brazil.") After months of battling, Gilliam got Universal to release a 132-minute version approved by him, but the Sheinberg-favored 94-minute "Love Conquers All" version was the one sold to television, and thus the only one seen by a lot of people for a long time. The original 142-minute cut was eventually released on Laserdisc and DVD. The Blu-ray features the 132-minute version. You can see why there's some confusion. I'm not just an idiot.

- It features the infectious samba song "Brazil," also heard in the trailer for "WALL-E."

The watching.

Katherine Helmond doesn't just get her face stretched. She gets it stretched by Jim Broadbent! Also, her ostentatious costumes and wigs make her look like Effie Trinket from "The Hunger Games." I especially like the leopard-print hat in the shape of a shoe.

In addition to Helmond and Broadbent, the film's instantly recognizable stars include Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and Michael Palin. If I ever knew that De Niro was in this, I'd forgotten the fact. He feels weirdly out of place.

It's always alarming to notice how a film made a long time ago eerily predicts the present. "Brazil" could easily take place in our post-9/11 world. There are posters everywhere urging citizens to be paranoid ("Suspicions Breeds Confidence"; "Don't suspect a friend -- turn him in") and to "mind that parcel," i.e., be on the lookout for unattended bags and packages. In modern parlance, it's "If you see something, say something." There's also the government's notion that the most reliable way to prevent terrorism is to torture people, as demonstrated in this exchange:

JILL: Doesn't it bother you, the sort of things you do in Information Retrieval?

SAM: What? I suppose you'd rather have terrorists?

Though I'm a fan of Monty Python as a group, the individual members' projects often leave me cold. That's especially true of Terry Gilliam's movies, of which "Brazil" might be the most representative. Gilliam's sensibilities are a hodge-podge of Python-style absurdist humor, slapstick, satirical commentary, whimsicality, dark humor and abrasiveness. It can be fun, but exhausting. "Brazil" is set in a gray, dispiriting world, shot mostly from low angles, and is full of activity. It's just ... chaotic. I see that as a style choice rather than a flaw, but still: this isn't a film I'd watch for pleasure.

I do have that song stuck in my head now, though. I've been sambaing all week.

Previous installments in My Shame List:

1. "Schindler's List"

2. "The French Connection"

3. "Once Upon a Time in the West"

4. "Beetlejuice"

5. "Jackie Brown"