Movie: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
My Rating: 4 stars
I’ve written about this movie before, but I’m revisiting it because I really did have a dramatically different experience upon watching it a second time. I didn’t care for this movie the first time I saw it, and I think that’s because I was just baffled. This is a Terry Gilliam movie, and he’s always been known for his fantastical, dreamy creations. And, this movie was so disorienting the first time I watched it, that I had a very hard time keeping track of what was going on. But, with a basic understanding of the core narrative under my belt, I was able to focus on and enjoy this film. It’s full of absolutely amazing details, dreamy logic, and some darkly comedic philosophy. The costumes alone are a complete masterpiece!
At its core, this is a story about a deal with the devil, “Mr. Nick.” And the devil is the role that Tom Waits was born to play. Mr. Nick is a gambling man. He loves to make a deal. But, he doesn’t necessarily care about winning. He likes the process. He likes to watch his prey sweat it out. He likes the torment. So, he’s been in a constantly-renewing, centuries-long deal with Dr. Parnassus. It’s a race to see who can convert the most souls. The prize is the soul of the doctor’s daughter, Valentina. Parnassus, of course, represents the virtuous, moral choice—self-sacrifice, hard work, and all of that. And, the devil offers the easy choice—base pleasures and instant gratification. And, it’s always a very close race. Almost as many people choose the easy route as the hard. So, just whenever it looks like the contest might be coming to an end, the devil renegotiates. He doesn’t want it to end. He loves the fight. He loves the desperation.
This contest takes place in a dream world created by Dr. Parnassus and his meditative trance technique. He learned this power in a very spiritual monastery. Volunteers get up onto his travelling stage, enter through a magical doorway, and find themselves in their own, personal paradise. All their secret desires are there for them to enjoy and bask in. And then they are asked to make a choice. Will they choose the comfort of their worldly pleasures? Or will they make a sacrifice and strive toward a higher ideal? It’s actually pretty fun to look inside a few characters minds—seeing what their guilty pleasures are, and guessing what they’ll choose. This was the portion of the film that was initially so disorienting for me. I couldn’t make sense of it at first. But, this time I really got to enjoy the madness—the dreams and nightmares these sequences depicted.
Of course, we all remember the buzz surrounding the making of this film. Heath Ledger, who plays one of the main characters, died in the middle of filming. The director and producers had to decide how to complete the film with one of its main actors gone. And, I really liked the solution they came up with. The story is so defined by dream logic that it’s only natural that people’s faces would change in this realm. You’ve had dreams like that, right? Dreams where you know it’s your friend, but it looks like someone else. Well, that’s the trick they used here. Heath Ledger’s face changes every time he enters the Imaginarium to match the fantasies of his companions. It was a very clever solution. I imagine they had to change the script a little as well, but I think it was a successful mechanism.
I think this time I would recommend this movie. I’ve definitely come around on it. But only do it if you have enough time to watch it twice. Don’t view it one right after the other, of course. You’ll need a little time to stew on the insanity. Come back to it after a few months. But, I predict that on the second viewing, you’ll understand enough about this crazy world to actually enjoy the magic.