It has taken me a while to write an article on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus for a very simple reason. It is so complex and is so visually overwhelming that it takes a good week or two to really process what you have seen in the theater. Most film school professors will tell you that Terry Gilliam is a self-indulgent and pretentious director. I, of course, almost never agree with film school academics or critics. I will say that the visuals in this film at times seem to overwhelm the story being told, although in many ways grand amusement is the nature of the Imaginarium itself.
Warning, spoilers follow.
In fact, one of the most puzzling elements of this movie is the very operation of the Imaginarium. We know that it is controlled by the mind, and that Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and the “Devil” use it to fight over the souls of the living. What I find most perplexing is the position of the character of God in all of this. We have a very clear Judeo-Christian symbol in Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) who seems to be more Mephistopheles than Satan himself. Waits slips into the roll of the serpent quite comfortably, as if he has already visited Hell and knows what it’s like. Many online have pointed to the Jesus symbolism apparent in the character of Tony. The problem in making that assumption is that Jesus was (according to Christian scripture) without sin and most likely did not harvest the organs of small children. In the end, I think it is best to not view this with a western mindset regarding ideas of good and evil.
This grey area actually makes the film more interesting than a typical rehashing of the story of Dr. Faustus. A large flaw with the film’s distribution has been the focus on the character of Tony played by Heath Ledger. Tony acts almost as more of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin than he does as a main protagonist. The main conflict in this film is between Parnassus and Mr. Nick. Some have pointed to the fact that Mr. Nick might not be the antagonist, and that the “bad guy” might be Tony. Now, Tony might not be a decent human being, but it is quite obvious from a storytelling standpoint that Tom Waits is the clear Antagonist.
The conflict present is whether The Devil will take Dr. Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), or if the doctor will be able to rescue her by saving five souls before The Devil corrupts the same amount. Unfortunately, before meeting Tony, the band of traveling performers does not seem to be up to the task of even saving one soul. They find Tony hanging underneath a bridge after having to leave their previous performance spot. They rescue him, but the Devil is not far behind as they continue on their journey. Tony, proving himself to be useful, revamps the traveling show into something more “contemporary” and succeeds in saving three souls before being pursued by the Russian mob.
It is at this point that we start to understand the true character of Tony. In a script revision that occurred out of necessity due to Heath Ledger’s untimely passing, Tony’s face (unlike other characters) changes when he enters the mirror. This could point to many things. It could be a reference to either the myths of Narcissus or of Janus. Janus, to me, seems more likely since Tony really is a two-faced liar. He has built a life on a bed of lies, and even brings business to the Imaginarium via the same questionable methods.
The conclusion does reveal Ledger’s sordid past as the president of a children’s charity, but I am not quite convinced that the facts contained in this portion of the film are accurate. For one, the Imaginarium enhances fears and self-doubts. It could be that Tony did borrow money from the mob, but did not participate in activities indicated by the script (not mentioned here for fear of leaking too many spoilers). I myself, am skeptical of how true Tony’s vision is to the truth since he is such a compulsive liar. It is very possible that he is the type of person that perpetually lies to the extent that he even believes his own lies. That would explain his own visions inside the Imaginarium, and leave the door open for interpretation regarding his place in the film and his character.
I am bringing up all of these questions, because I am not quite convinced that Parnassus is a perfect film. It is quite fun, full of great performances, and visually arresting. It also lacks a certain cohesion required to produce a concise narrative. Part of me believes that this is due to the extensive rewrites that occurred out of necessity thanks to Heath Ledger’s passing. Another part of me wonders if this isn’t another case of Terry Gilliam’s imagination being to vast and inventive for his own good. Whatever the case, Parnassus remains a delightful romp through the imagination, with all the signature moments that we have come to expect from a Terry Gilliam film. If anything, we can all be grateful that one of the few living directors who values childhood imagination is back in top form.