Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus -- souls in the balance
Director: Terry Gilliam, 2009. (PG-13)
If you loved Monty Python (The Holy Grail, Life of Brian), you will probably love this film. Gilliam, the imaginative animator and only American in the original troupe, has created a fantasy that is weird and wonderful and reminiscent in places of his work in Monty Python.
The Imaginarium is a morality story, a good-vs-evil tale, that centers on Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer).A millennium ago he was a monastery leader in a remote mountain setting, leading his monks in a continuing telling of "the story." When a mysterious stranger with strange powers enters, he challenges Parnassus to a wager. This growly voiced man loses and gives Parnassus his wish -- immortality. He is, after all, Mr Nick (Tom Waits), none other than the devil incarnate.
Here the devil has tapped into a deep desire all mankind has: to live forever. We want to be immortal. We were made to be immortal. But we lost this when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden so long ago (Gen. 3). Their choice was our (and their) loss. We will die physically. Yet, in our spirit or soul we are immortals. We face an eternal existence beyond the grave that is dependent on our choices in this life. If we choose to follow Jesus and accept the forgiveness he offers, we will find ourselves accepted into his family (Jn. 1:12) and experience eternal life in heaven later (Mk. 10:30). If we choose to ignore Jesus and his offer of life, God will honor our choice and allow us to be separated for all eternity in the hereafter (Rev. 20:14-15). That is the place we call hell, described as filled with pain and torment without respite (Matt. 25:46).
Over the centuries Parnassus has been walking the earth with his imaginarium, a travelling side-show of sorts, aging but not dying. But when he eyes a beautiful woman, he is willing to make a trade with Mr. Nick. He wants his youth back so he might woo and win her. The deal is a subtle one. He gets his youth and the devil gets his first-born, if he has a child, when she turns 16. He has put off for tomorrow this debt-obligation so as to experience the pleasures of today.
How often do we make "deals with the devil"? Not necessarily literally, as with Dr. Parnassus' deal, but figuratively. We avoid God and enjoy the temptations of sin. We look for ways to extend our earthly physical life at almost any cost. We worship youth and practice agism. We put off death. We don't even talk of death anymore. We hide it from ourselves, as if by closing our eyes and stopping our ears we will make it go away. Ironically, we watch so many deaths and killings on the screen yet act as if death will never pay a personal visit.
Fast forward to 21st century London. Dr. Parnassus has a daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), who is almost 16. With her and his two helpers, Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer, mini-me in the Austin Powers movies), Parnassus takes his horse-drawn imaginarium around the country offering a fantastic choice to anyone who would enter. But how can his old-fashioned stage-show from the back of his carriage compete with the flashy lights of modern mindless entertainment?
One night as they are departing the city they spy a figure "river dancing" on the Thames. It is Tony (Heath Ledger), swinging from a noose. His shadow is playing out on the river while he chokes to death. They save him and he joins their troupe, an amnesiac who can't remember why he was hung and who did it to him. But there is clearly more to Tony than meets the eye.
Many of us will remember the late Heath Ledger for his posthumous Oscar-winning role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Most think that was his last role. But not so. This film was his last performance. Not as malevolent as the Joker, he still loses himself in the role and is totally believable as a man who has a dark history he is hiding. But he died while it was being filmed, and with his sudden death, the production was shut down for several months. Being a fantasy, though, the script was rewritten so that Johnny Depp (Finding Neverland), Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) and Colin Farrell could take his role and complete the film. Given that people enter the imaginarium and encounter a fantasy-land of their own making, we can accept that Tony could enter that place and find himself the same person but with a different face. This rewrite is effective and allows us to see these other three talented actors enable Ledger's last role to come to the screen. And they didn't take a penny either. They graciously donated their earnnigs to a trust for Ledger's daughter.
The imaginarium is actually a projection of the mind of Dr Parnassus when he is in a trance-like state. An audience member who steps through the "mirror" enters into this mind bringing along his or her dreams. The imaginarium magically creates a wonderland from the personal dreams of that person. It is like Alice going through the looking glass, but entering a personally crafted land. Not asking for money to enter, they are given plenty when the person returns, after all, as Tony declares, "Can you put a price on your dreams?" Sometimes you can, often you can't.
We all dream. The older we get the more we have released our dreams to float away like helium-filled balloons. What we once held dear as potent possibilities we now loose as vapid vapors never to be accomplished. Yet there are still one or two dreams we cling to, hoping beyond hope that they might come true. Parnassus plays on these.
There is a catch, though. All who experience the wonder and joy of finding their dreams come true in this imaginarium, ultimately face a choice. When Mr. Nick shows up in their dream-scape, customizing his temptation to the person, they must choose imagination and beauty or immorality and sensuality. The temptation hangs over them and their life hangs in that choice.
With Valentino just a day away from her 16th birthday, Mr. Nick shows up once more. Always a gambler, he offers Parnassus another wager: if Parnassus can win 5 souls over to beauty and life he will allow her to live and stay with him; if the people choose immorality and temptation he keeps their souls and hers.
Here is the crux of the plot. Like in the Old Testament book of Job the devil places a wager on the outcome of a test. There, Satan wagered with God over Job (Job. 1:9), who was tested with loss of wealth, family and health. Satan expected Job to do what his wife advised, "curse God and die" (Job. 2:9), but he did not account for Job's faith. Here Parnassus takes the place of God, but provides the place of the testing, in his imagination, and Valentino is the object of the wager. Like Job, she knows nothing about the bet or the price if Parnassus loses. But Parnassus cannot afford to lose.
When Tony finds out the truth about Parnassus' imaginarium, he asks, "If Doctor Parnassus can really control people's minds, why isn't he ruling the world, then, eh? Why bother with this little . . . side show?" Anton knows the answer to that question, as he has been around Parnassus and this circus for while: " 'Side show'? He don't . . . he don't want to rule the world. He wants the world to rule itself!" Parnassus has experienced the power and manipulations of Satan. He wants the world to be free of this bondage. In a sense, he wants to act as God, counteracting the traps of the devil.
God, though, does rule the world, even if we don't acknowledge this. It is his creation (Gen. 1:1) and he is sovereign (Isa. 40:10). In the grand scheme, there is a battle between good and evil. And good has already won the decisive victory in Christ's death on the cross to conquer sin and death (1 Cor. 15:54-57), and his resurrection to life (1 Cor. 15:20). But though the final chapter has been written in Revelation (Rev. 20:7-10), the middle chapters are still playing out in God's imaginarium. He places before each one of us, in our own personal stories, our own moral choice -- freedom or destruction, life or death. We can find freedom in Christ (Gal. 5:1). Or we can ignore Jesus and God and follow the wiles of Satan. There we find our life ends in eternal destruction (Rev. 20:15). That is the devil's intention and hope. God wants us to choose life, love and liberty. Until we make our choice, our souls hang in the balance.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs