Movie Review: Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus- An Intelligent and Unique Journey into the Depth of Imagination and Moral Choice

When it comes to the films of Terry Gilliam there is not a person that can say they are uncreative or unoriginal. From flying dream sequences in Brazil to time traveling midgets in Time Bandits Gilliam is known for stretching believability and the imagination to the point of breaking. His history as an animator allows him to see the world in a vastly different way in how the possibilities of filmmaking are infinite even if the world works against him. It is almost as if the acclaimed director has a curse on his name for every single one of his films has always had a problem including his new film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, where his lead actor Heath Ledger died in the middle of shooting. After consideration of dumping the entire project Gilliam was convinced to rewrite the script to accommodate for the missing scenes and the final product is seamless. “This is my Fanny and Alexander; this is my Amarcord,” Gilliam has stated and this imaginative, complex, philosophical, and moral tale depicted in a farce like tone is anything but ordinary, in fact, it’s one of the most inventive and original tales in the last decade. Terry Gilliam has never been accessible in Hollywood terms but his Grimm-esque fantasy tale is artistically adventurous and imaginatively original. As Anton in the film states, “This world we live in is full of enchantment for those with the eyes to see it,” and this film definitely brings back a sense of wonder to filmmaking and it’s vast possibilities for those who dare to experience it.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, as the distinctive title suggests, deals with heavily complicated moral questions in a story framework that is equally imaginative and reflective. Terry Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown, a collaborator with Gilliam on many of his films, have made such a complex script that it was quite possible for many of the themes, messages, and perceptions to get lost among each other but the careful directing and the thoughtful precision of the script didn’t allow this to be the fate of this film. It is a remarkable tale one that dabbles in vast literary references and classical philosophy with a slight contemporary touch on the ambiguity of good and evil. Dr. Parnassus, an exceptionally tired looking Christopher Plummer, is a man who has been in dealings with the devil for over 1,000 years making bets and raising the stacks whenever the devil finds it interesting. Mr. Nick is no theological Satan instead he is very much a symbolism of man, a gambler and opportunistic gentlemen who tempts those in taking the path of least resistance. Musician Tom Waits in a bowler hat and paper thin mustache plays this realistic and humorous devil so well that it seems unlikely that anyone can ever top such a genuinely charming yet devious performance. Unfortunately for Dr. Parnassus Mr. Nick has come to collect the debt which is Parnassus’ daughter Valentina once she reaches her sweet 16 only a few days away. Valentina, along with two others a small announcer and an idealist entertainer, make up the performance troupe of the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The Imaginarium allows people to pass through a mirror and eventually make a choice amid their paradise, ultimately a good versus evil choice that determines the fate of their soul either returning to be a seemingly better human or into the hands of Mr. Nick, forever. “We don’t play, what we do is deadly serious,” states Dr. Parnassus, and this eternal battle for man’s soul by the hands of the devil is extremely philosophical and endless in its significance.

Luckily here Valentina’s fate isn’t so black and white since Mr. Nick is always up for a new bet, which involves people entering the Imaginarium and betting their souls either to be won by Parnassus or Mr. Nick. Here is where we are introduced in a haunting fashion to Tony, a subtle and exuberant Heath Ledger, who is hanging by the neck under a bridge. Tony doesn’t seem to remember who he is yet his gimmick seems too good to be true and his swindling and money making abilities too finessed to sit comfortably with any audience member paying close attention. Yet his talents are used to aid in the saving of Valentina’s life as he enters the mirrored world first to peak into another woman’s fantasy, a second time to escape some alleged Russian gangsters, and a third time to go with Valentina to save her soul. Ledger unfortunately died before they could film these imagination sequences yet the script transition of changing his persona every time he entered is poetic to the duel sided character and is flawless in execution. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all give great continuation performances to give this questionable character the depth Heath’s memory deserved to have preserved. Most of the characters are questionable but then again the human race is a reflection of questionable decisions all for self-interest, preservation, or embracing excesses in luxuries and vices. Tony is not all who seems to be and gives the performance of Heath Ledger a nuanced and complex delivery one that is more surprising and deserving of mourning his lost talents than the Dark Knight preserved.

Filmmaking has always been on the forefront of stretching the visual possibilities of storytelling and allowing dreams and the imagination to be brought to life. If there is one director that can take you into the doors of dreams and the possibilities of perception it is definitely Terry Gilliam. The world he creates is in a way better than the digital world created in the pristine Avatar due to its perception and how it rivals the actual world we are introduced to in the beginning. The designs are remarkable and can be attributed to Gilliam’s abilities as an animator and stretching filmmaking’s possibilities in story and design. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is dualistic in delivery and accentuates its multiple mirrored messages dealing with digital worlds versus real worlds, good decisions versus bad decisions, or dreams versus nightmares. Traveling through the mirror of Dr. Parnassus’ Imaginarium ignites some interesting reflections on the tiring aspect of making decisions and how the tempting path of least resistance is very much in our human nature. By no means is this an easy film to grasp or get through due to its philosophical complexities, ambiguously moral characters, and uncomfortably honest lens into human nature but then again when has film only been about entertaining you as if you were a child as most films nowadays inevitably do.

Terry Gilliam is a rare filmmaker in any period of filmmaking history, dabbling in concepts rarely explored in modern cinema while remaining stylistically original in story and style. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is by far Gilliam’s best work in over 11 years if not ranking in his top three due to its highly conceptual topics and accessible delivery. Most people will see this film in order to get a glance at Heath Ledger’s last performance and while that is worth while it is just one part of this director’s uninhibited imagination at play. Where most people see conceptual limitations Gilliam is able to make these a reality and bring a sense of wonder and creativity to the forum of cinema that is rarely exercised. This film requests you pay attention to its detail in every aspect including visuals, story, acting, and exploration into its various themes and messages. In one sense it’s a moral tale of the corruption of the soul while another is the freeing ability of the imagination and the seamless weaving of these difficult subjects is done in an incredibly interesting and original fashion by this talented yet cursed director. Such as life nothing is as it seems nor is it black and white, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will certainly let you revel in that realization.

Grade: A-

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