The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—who can understand it?
I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a traveling sideshow that looks like it belongs in the 19th cen tury—a team of six horses draws the tipsily tall wagon—but the cars we see in the streets of London are of recent vintage. The star of the tacky looking show is Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) who possesses such magical powers that when a customer can be enticed to walk through his mirror, she (almost all of the customers are women) finds herself in a world in which her wild lusts and imaginings are fulfilled for a brief period. He is assisted by his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who dances; Anton (Andrew Garfield) dressed in a cheesy Mercury costume serving as barker; and the tiny dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer), who sometimes is sage and conscience. Most of the skeptical Londoners who even bother to stop are so unimpressed by the show that are resistant to any blandishment offered by Valentine or Anton. Then comes the rainy night when they come upon a body with a noose around its throat hanging from a bridge over the Thames.
The three haul the body up and cut off the rope. Dr. Parnassus tells them to leave the body alone, but his three assistants pay him no heed. When they press in his chest a small cylindrical panpipe pops out of the man’s throat. He is alive, or at least halfway so. They dump him into a trunk, and the next day, when he awakes, he cannot tell them who he is. From a glimpse of a newspaper blowing in the wind we get the impression that his is a dark past. Anton quickly becomes suspicious when the stranger (Heath Ledger) makes eyes at Valentina—Anton has always hoped she would respond to his love for her. Before long the stranger convinces the Doctor that their act is failing because it is too old fashioned, that what is needed is a refurbished version certain to draw in the modern customer. With Dr. Parnassus agreeing, the show is soon drawing so many customers that the women begin fighting for first place in line.
Director and writer Terry Gilliam’s movie is a mess, often very confusing, and yet like his Brazil, a fascinating one. He has so many ideas that he tries to put into effect that the screen at times almost bursts with energy. Gilliam has combined elements of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass with the old Faust tale. Claiming to be over a thousand years old, Dr. Parnassus has gambled with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a.k.a. the Devil, through the centuries. His latest wager involves each of them winning over five souls to his side—with the stakes being the soul of Valentina when she reaches the age of sixteen in three days. The stranger eventually regains his memory: he is Tony, head of a charity front set up by a Russian mob. His life is sought by their henchmen because he has absconded with the funds. He has survived hanging by placing his pipe in his throat, thus keeping his air passage intact, but will it work when the hit men follow him through the magic mirror and into the strange world conjured up by the magic of Dr. Parnassus and the lusts of his own mind? There is a lot more to come, including a final wager on Mt. Parnassus in dreamland wherein Tony is resolved to give his soul for that of Valentina—and more.
Terry Gilliam shows that his inventiveness by reversing his decision to scrap his film when Heath Ledger died so suddenly. Most of the scenes involving Ledger this side of the magic mirror had been filmed, so the director used three other actors for Ledger’s stand-ins during the three sequences taking place in the either side of the Imaginarium— Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Gilliam sets us up for this by having a minor character going through the mirror change her appearance.
The film is indeed a mess in many ways, the plot at times very hard to follow, and yet it is a delight to the eyes as well as an illustration of the ways in which our hearts (or desires) can lead us astray. When a portly matron insists on usurping the head of the line for those waiting to enter the land beyond the mirror, we see her obsession with clothing and jewels—there are dozens of huge women’s shoes surrounding the paths on which she walks. She willingly trades her soul to fulfill her desires. Soon Tony has collected four souls needed to save his lover.
And later, when Tony passes through the Imaginarium’s mirror the landscape looks like the product of folk art, and there are dozens of mirrors reaching up into the sky. Seeing tiny figures climbing them, the ambitious Tony mounts his own ladder, eager to reach the top. There is so much crammed into the film that one really should see it with a group so as to sort out its various meanings.
For reflection/Discussion 1. How is the film similar to Lewis Carroll’s and to the Faust stories? What other stories about a human wagering with the Devil can you think of?
2. What apparently did Dr. Parnassus want that led him to gamble with the Devil? What might you be tempted by that would lead you to make a wager with the Devil?
3. How might the matron whose desire was shoes and jewels have done better had she heeded Jesus’ words in Matt. 6:19-24?
4. With what does Parnassus seek to tempt the Russian gangsters? What does this say about his view of policemen?
5. In the episode in which there is a myriad of ladders, were you reminded of the meaning of other ladders? Such as “Jacob’s Ladders” in the old Spiritual and Genesis story; or the saying about climbing the ladder of success?
6. What kind of a person has Tony apparently been? What does the banquet sequence reveal about him? Does the logos on the table cloth “Suffer the little children” sound familiar? Yet how does Tony redeem himself at the end?