Terry Gilliam’s Crazy Movie

October 30, 2009

Spoilers Ahead

Edit: I did way too much talking about plot here and not nearly enough time talking about what was actually going on, so the whole thing got an almost complete revision. I’m not sure a single sentence remains from the original…

I really can’t discuss this movie critically without discussing the end, which in turn means spoiling it, so beware. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is Terry Gilliam’s latest movie, and the Monty Python alum has become famous for films that make viewers say to themselves “Wait… what?” That’s at least how I felt watching this film. Here commences the obligatory plot rundown:

Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, an immortal Eastern mystic type guy whose adversary in the story is appropriately enough The Devil played by Tom Waits. (Yes, Tom Waits. Awesome.) He’s made a series of wagers with Mr. Waits, leading us up to today: his daughter Valentina will be taken away from him if he is unable to get five souls to do things his way. So… how’s this accomplished?

The Doctor is joined by his daughter and two others, Anton and Percy, in putting on a stage show: The Imaginarium. In the course of the show people go through a magic mirror and enter the Doctor’s mind. Later on they are joined by Heath Ledger’s Tony, a shadowy character, and race the devil to five. The scenes inside the Doctor’s head are exceptional. People are confronted with their temptations and offered a way out. Once Tony gets inside the Imaginarium things get a little bit more interesting, as his personality and past messes with things, allowing the Devil the even the score.

The world of the Imaginarium is a fascinating one. The people who enter are given a binary choice, black or white, to decide their fate. True, that choice is definitely shaded towards the person failing, as it appeals to temptation, but while an interesting conceit, I find it doesn’t reflect the real world that effectively. At least, it doesn’t until Tony enters for the last time, intending on deciding the contest between The Devil and the Doctor for good. At this point, everything gets grey and muddied. See, Tony goes into the Imaginarium for an ostensibly good reason. He wants to save Valentina, but things already look shady when it’s revealed that Tony’s intentions toward Valentina aren’t quite the best. Before too long The Imaginarium uses Tony’s past (He ran a children’s charity) to cook up a great set piece; here’s where we see the conflict of good intentions and evil urges. Underneath his work for kids lies a glory hound, and this ends up being his downfall. Valentina is so disillusioned by the events and the revealing of Tony’s character that she ends up being the deciding soul, winning the game for the Devil.

But it isn’t quite done, you see the Devil didn’t really want to win that way; he’s really after Tony, so he offers the Doctor one final bargain. Tony in exchange for Valentina. This is an incredibly dark turn, and I’m still not sure what it means. The whole movie through the Doctor had been trying to get people to turn and embrace their goodness; here at the end, the Doctor sets Tony up to be killed (Really, he kills himself) in the Imaginarium. Is Gilliam implying here that some people are simply beyond redemption? Or that some lives are worth more than others? (Daughter over corrupt charity head?) Or that the Doctor’s view of humans is simply wrong, and the Devil is closer to the human truth?

The movie’s out in December in the States. If you see it, let me know what you thought.

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