The idea for the Alternative Christmas Film Advent Calendar (there’s probably a much simpler title out there) is simple; a film each day in the build up to Christmas that isn’t your standard Christmas film. Not like The Muppet Christmas Carol, Elf or Die Hard (that’s an argument for another day, or year), but one that might be set at Christmas but the holiday isn’t a major factor in the story of the film, or it’s simply mentioned a couple of times and made reference to throughout.
We’re roughly half-way through this week of alternative Christmas films, and as most places have finished work for Christmas now what better way to spend the spare time, aside from last-minute shopping, than with another festive treat. The offering behind todays calendar door being none other than Terry Gilliam’s Oscar nominated Brazil.
For those who have seen Brazil it might not exactly seem like what you would think of when you think about the standard, good-humoured, slightly charming enjoyable Christmas films that you normally turn on each December. In fact it’s most notable for being one of the ‘Gilliamesque’ Terry Gilliam features there is. Filled with it’s deeply vivid sense of imagination, set against the backdrop of a futuristic, and therefore, dystopian world, and mixed with the largely grey and darkened colour palette there’s a strongly looming sense of darkness around the film. All of which act as a form of repression on central figure Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), with his constant dreams of being a heroic, winged figure in a world that seems extremely far-fetched and dream-like, especially compared to the one in which he lives in. Clearly showing why the initial title for the film was 1984 1/2, until a film version of 1984 was released the year before.
It’s this, what some might see as, slightly downbeat nature, and the general ideas that run throughout it, that made the film troublesome for some when first released; or rather, just before being first released. While being released as the Gilliam cut in all other countries across the world America was the only place not to have released the film. Universal had people working behind-the-scenes the make a new edit for American audiences, something which Gilliam greatly protested against. Gilliam’s irritation, to put it lightly, grew so much that he sent a letter to Variety, which then got published as a full page, simply saying “Dear Sid Sheinberg [the head of Universal at the time] When are you going to release my film, ‘BRAZIL’? Terry Gilliam”. However, the version of the film was still kept hidden away. That was until Gilliam’s cut won Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards. Soon after a release of this original edit was put into U.S. cinemas, and while it wasn’t a box office success it did go on to receive a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, alongside one for Best Set Decoration, and has gained a relatively strong cult following over the years, as have most of Gilliam’s films.
So far the sell for this as an alternative Christmas film has made it sound anything but festive, especially from the opening lines of this piece. And, admittedly this is far from the type of Christmas film that we’re used to, even by Die Hard standards. However, this is partly where the idea of an alternative Christmas film comes into play. Christmas is mentioned every now and then over the course of Brazil, in fact the film is set at Christmas. Decorations can be seen thinly laid out on occasional, filthy, littered work-spaces in a handful of scenes alongside the odd Christmas tree and simple reference to the holiday. The sense of hope, peace and people coming together contrasts strongly with the ideas of selfishness, greed and control that the film presents, if anything going towards and heightening these. Thus making the satirical tones that little bit more humorous, adding to what could otherwise be a highly depressing film.
The film’s opening scene, leading into the chaos, mistakes and misjudgements that lie throughout the rest of the run-time, is the one to most prominently display this. A calm Christmas scene, a family together enjoying themselves, quietly reading A Christmas Carol. Until a government group, seemingly running some form of military operation, burst in and the tone completely changes. All while the theme of Christmas, the decorations, the music, etc still remains. The idea of gift-giving, receiving, yet always feeling that something is being taken away or
When everything comes together this is a truly imaginative film – after all Gilliam refers to it as the second in his ‘imagination trilogy’ (also featuring Time Bandits and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen – almost telling a story of imagination changing with age. Gilliam also considers this to be the first in a trilogy of dystopian satires, also including 12 Monkeys and The Zero Theorem; the latter of which shares a number of themes and ideas with Brazil). One that’s filled with humour, perception and, of course, a slightly dark and sinister tone that creates a fine mix for a highly ‘Gilliamesque’ feature that needs to be seen to be properly understood and, most importantly, believed. And it’s truly worth the watch. Many consider this to be Gilliam’s best film, for me it’s his second best, although I consider Tideland – his hugely divisive 2005 feature – to be his true masterpiece. Nonetheless, Brazil is a genuine experience, one that stays with you and while not being your conventional Christmas film is definitely alternative, and the slight hints of Christmas add that little bit extra to its impact, effect and general tone.
Brazil can be watched in the following places:
Or it can also be available via the medium of DVD, Blu-ray and maybe even VHS or Laserdisc (if you have either of those knocking about, and something that will play them), etc, and of course it may be on other streaming or rental platforms; always worth the search.