There came a point, Terry Gilliam remembers, when the answer seemed to be international guerrilla moviegoing.

Yes, that was it. If Universal Studios wouldn't release "Brazil" in the United States, he and the producer would just have to smuggle audiences out of the country.

"We were going to take cinemas translation: rent theaters in Mexico and bus people across the border," the director recalls, reviewing the long campaign to shame the studio into release. He has just flown in from London to help hype the movie that, a few months ago, he actually was breaking the law to show, and the bizarre circumstances combined with jet lag are making the endeavor seem enormously funny. "The whole thing was heights of hilarity and depths of depression. We were crazy."

As it happened, the desperado filmmakers didn't rent any Mexican drive-ins. But they did stage clandestine screenings in private homes in Los Angeles and run a full-page ad in Variety, which led to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's voting "Brazil" the best picture of the year, which led to the very studio that embargoed "Brazil" suddenly marshaling its minions to promote it. The movie opened last Friday in Washington and Gilliam, whose years as the American member of the Monty Python troupe helped prepare him for life in the absurd lane, is giving ebullient and triumphant interviews full of military metaphors.

It's been "a long, drawn-out war of attrition," he says. "And it was all public, that was what was so wonderful. Normally this sort of nonsense goes on behind closed doors and you read about it years later in a book."

"Brazil," a futuristic comic fantasy in which the forces of repression conquer less with armaments than with sheer paperwork, had been simmering in Gilliam's fevered imagination for some time. The first of the Pythons to direct a solo movie ("Jabberwocky," then "Time Bandits"), he noted the approach of 1984 ("not the film, the year") and wanted "to do what the book did in 1948, a vision of the near future, a cautionary tale." It was the first project for which Gilliam and producer Arnon Milchan had big Hollywood bucks -- Fox put up $6 million in exchange for international distribution rights; Universal, the U.S. distributor, invested $9 million.

The plan was to release "Brazil" for Christmas 1984, a timetable that went awry almost immediately "because I'm inefficient, stupid." Three months into the shooting, "I realized it was going to be five hours long and $10 million over budget and I said, 'We've got to stop,' " Gilliam remembers. " 'I've got to rewrite.' " Shooting actually halted for several weeks. Nevertheless, he points out, the film stayed within its budget. Fox released it in Europe last winter; it has been playing in one Paris theater for a full year.

In the States, however, there ensued what Gilliam calls "our stalemate with Sid" -- Sheinberg, president of MCA, Universal's corporate parent. Sheinberg wanted "Brazil" shortened; Gilliam agreed to cut 11 minutes from the version running in Europe but no more. More critically, Sheinberg disliked the conclusion, which defies conventional notions of happy endings and insisted, Gilliam says, that it needed "a radical rethink."

"I always said, 'Listen, Sid, the film we made is the film we all agreed to make. If you want to make another film, you have my support. Just put your name on it. "Sid Sheinberg's Brazil." Very simple.' "

Instead, Universal declined to release Gilliam's "Brazil," and the battle was joined.

Gilliam and Milchan considered and rejected legal action -- "the film disappears for another few years while the lawyers wrangle . . . We had to do something public. And not sensible."

The director started giving interviews in Los Angeles; so did Universal executives. Their argument was conducted in the press: "Sid says . . . Lew Wasserman chairman and CEO of MCA says . . . Sid says that Frank Price president of Universal Studios says . . . On and on," Gilliam recounts with relish. When Sheinberg told a reporter he would gladly unload "Brazil" at a fire-sale price, Gilliam and Milchan tried -- twice, unsuccessfully -- to take him at his word and buy it back.

In October, Gilliam placed his ad in Variety: "Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film Brazil? Signed . . ." The page cost $1,400, he recalls -- "or was it pounds? Well, 1,400 something." Gilliam, 45, was raised in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, but he has lived in England for the past 18 years and finds himself saying "lift" for elevator and "queue" for line.

"It scared the expletive out of me; there was something naked about it," he says of his ad. "In Variety, where every other page bleats, '$10 million in the first 30 seconds!,' there was this naked plea. I thought, what have we done?" He was driven, he says, by "sheer frustration. We didn't seem to have any other weapons."

Universal, of course, had one mighty weapon, namely, sole U.S. exhibition rights. Its lawyers acted to prevent Gilliam from showing "Brazil" ("as an audio-visual aid") to an audience of film students at the University of Southern California. He and Milchan retaliated by inviting critics to a surreptitious screening at a Beverly Hills mansion. The owner's name must remain unsung ("because it's too interesting"), but he/she became "part of the Resistance."

As the L.A. critics approached their awards proceedings in December, other clandestine screenings were arranged. "We just wanted them to see it," Gilliam says. "Maybe they'd give us a special prize for the Best Unreleased Picture of the Year."

But the critics, deciding that their bylaws did not restrict the voting to released movies, voted "Brazil" the Best, without qualifiers. And the rest -- New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, national release, publicity tours, advertising, high per-seat grosses -- was show biz.

Summoned to Universal's high-rise headquarters for peace councils, Gilliam and Milchan rode up in a "lift" and suddenly came face to face, cinematically enough, with Sheinberg. "There were no blows struck, but smiles of a rather crooked kind," Gilliam reports. "We all see a certain irony . . . He said, 'Ahhh, the two bad guys.' I said, 'You must be the good guy, then.' "

Now, with Universal releasing "Brazil" in time for Oscar contention, "the knives are semiremoved from the backs," Gilliam says. But he also calls it "not likely" he'll be working with Universal again.

Feeling vindicated by success, Gilliam won't seriously entertain notions that Universal might have been right about the length of the movie, which features myriad chase scenes down myriad alleys. "I'd personally like to put a couple of things back in," he says.

As for the possibility that the Los Angeles critics were as interested in sending a flippant signal to a studio as in evaluating "Brazil" as 1985's finest film, "that was not the environment," Gilliam protests. "It bothers me; there's a lot of revisionism going on in Hollywood. The Los Angeles critics have not been noted for being so out of line with studio films."

Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas, recently elected president of the association, calls the vote "a sincere expression. I don't think anybody voted for 'Brazil' who didn't like it." He also points out that "we couldn't agree on some of the more prominent entries. 'Out of Africa' and 'The Color Purple' drew very divided reactions." The 30 or so critics at the awards voting also felt some sympathy for the filmmakers, Thomas acknowledges. "The opportunity, not to do something against Universal, but to do something for the picture was not entirely out of our minds."

As for the film itself, which Gilliam worried "was beginning to sound like a terribly elite, obscure sort of art film that this auteur made for himself," it's usually described as "bleakly funny." Playwright Tom Stoppard's verbal prestidigitation complements Gilliam's still-cartoony visual tricks.

Gilliam cheerfully acknowledges that he copped the ending from the short classic "Incident at Owl Creek Bridge." "There's nothing original in 'Brazil.' The recipe is standard ingredients -- 'Citizen Kane,' 'Metropolis,' 'Dr. Strangelove,' Steven Spielberg and Frank Capra and Buster Keaton. I work like a big blender."

Speaking of originality and blending, Monty Python may make another movie in a couple of years. But for the moment, Gilliam says, Python exists primarily as "a dining group." So he and Charles McKeown (who cowrote and acted in "Brazil") have a script ready for the next Gilliam solo project.

It's going to be about Baron Munchausen, hero of Prussian tall tales. "It has the happy ending that Sid wanted," Gilliam says gleefully. "The fantasist wins. The realist is torn apart by the mob. It's about death, as well. All of America's favorite themes. This is dangerous stuff we're doing. It makes 'Brazil' look really simple."