It was only a few years ago that my local Blockbuster was having their “going out of business” sale. I was taking the chance to buy a few movies with what little money I had, when I stumbled upon the film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The case art alone was interesting. It showed four men in white suits surrounding a mirror that showed a landscape resembling Candy Land. On the back of the box, it mentioned that the movie showed Heath Ledger in his last film role. Considering the movie was only $3, I didn’t see a reason why I shouldn’t buy it. To this day it stands as one of my favorite movies, not because of the movie itself, but for the potential the story had.
Spoilers after the jump.
We follow an older gentleman by the name of Doctor Parnassus who travels around modern day London with a group of people, going to public venues to find anyone willing to “expand their horizons”. If someone’s intrigued with the show, they go through a mirror and make a choice: either to better themselves, or give into temptation. Oddly they don’t target people who are misguided in life; rather they literally choose anyone (of an adult age). From a woman smoking outside, to people visiting a carnival, they tell little of their intentions and expect to be paid for their services. When a person decides to volunteer, they are told to walk through a prop mirror, through which they are transported into “the mind of the Doctor”. How the person sees this dream world in the Doctor’s mind depends on the individual’s own psyche, along with any current trauma that person is facing. For instance, an alcoholic finds himself stumbling through the woods, tripping over empty bottles, then dropped from the sky in front of a crossroads. He can either climb a large staircase to an ambiguous shining light, or he can rest at the pub to his left. As he walks into the bar and orders a double, the building explodes, and the man is sent to hell.
After a few failed attempts of saving souls in this way, Doctor Parnassus explains to his daughter, Valentina, that he has been playing this game of chance with the Devil for a thousand years as part of a series of bets. He lived the beginning of his life as a monk, under the belief that he and the other monks were ordained to the task of telling a story. Sadly there’s no context as to what the story is about, just that it’s of the utmost importance that it be told, as it “held the universe together”. When the devil visited Parnassus and the monks, he stole their voices, and tried to prove that even though they have stopped their narration, the world continued on. The Doctor continues to believe that out in the world, someone else is telling a story, and that is why the universe is sustained. The Devil, or “Mr. Nick” as Parnassus calls him, offers him a bet: if he could keep people interested in his stories, he would be granted eternal life. Parnassus won the bet, but later realized the devil let him win, for reasons he had yet to discover.
His story is cut short when the group stops to save a man hanging from a bridge. The man says that he can’t recall who he is and why he was hung, so Parnassus suggests that he work in their show to see if he can recollect his memories in the meantime.
Two days before Valentina’s sixteenth birthday, Parnassus is visited by Mr. Nick. He’s reminded that he had sold his daughter to the Devil in exchange for youth to seduce a woman (Val’s mother). Mr. Nick decides to be generous, and offers the Doctor another bet: if he can guide five souls to salvation, he can keep his daughter.The hanged man, who remembers himself as Tony, suggests that the show be made more modern and less clunky to attract more people to the show. The group agrees, and they sit around a shopping district to collect volunteers. To their surprise, Tony’s idea works, and they gather four people within a matter of minutes.
An hour before her birthday, Valentina overhears her father talk about his current bet and storms off. Parnassus has given up at this point, but Tony volunteers himself as the last soul to be saved. Valentina comes back distraught, and Tony convinces her to follow him into the mirror to escape reality. By this point, Anton, a fellow performer, has learned about Tony’s dark past, and tries to stop them from running away together. The two go through anyway, and eventually find an abandoned child crying. The scene quickly changes to that of a charity ball, as Tony starts to show his true colors as a man who adores publicity and fame. Anton finds his way through the mirror, disguised as a child, and tries to tell Valentina the truth about Tony. He shows her a newspaper clipping about how Tony sold third-world children’s organs to high buyers. A fight breaks out, and a crowd sees Tony beating up a child (Anton), and they try to kill him.
As Tony runs from the crowd, Valentina is left behind in the ruins of Tony’s world, and comes across two doors. Her crossroad becomes the direct decision of either going to Hell (making her the fifth soul for the bet), or to choose salvation. Mr. Nick tries to stop her, but she tricks him and goes to Hell. Irritated about how things have turned out of his favor, Mr. Nick goes to Doctor Parnassus to make yet another deal. He will release his daughter from Hell, if he can help take Tony down instead. The Devil claims that he has been trying to get Tony for years, yet he always seems to escape. Parnassus agrees and helps the crowd hang Tony for good. Mr. Nick thanks the Doctor, and mentions that even though he released Valentina, he has no idea where she is. Parnassus spends presumably years in a state of depression, in the desert wasteland that has become his mind, as a hobo on the streets of England. By chance he finds his daughter, who has a daughter of her own with Anton. One of the performers finds Parnassus, cleans him up, and has him work for his business, selling paper doll models of the theater show they had performed for so long.
The plot is certainly exciting enough, so why don’t I love the movie? While the plot was all right, there are too many elements in the film that ruin it for me. The characters go from making dwarf jokes to using blackface for a cheap laugh. Why isn’t there more of a relationship between Percy and Parnassus, considering they both were monks long ago? Having Percy joke about “getting a midget” is hardly a show of companionship, considering it’s just insulting himself. Parnassus is supposed to be this wise person who has seen humanity grow for thousands of years; why would he agree to use Percy as a Black child, not only because of his stature, but to gather sympathy too? How is this helping to enlighten anyone? They had enough flashy costumes that they didn’t need to use blackface to attract people’s attention.
Several performers in the filmseverely mistreat Valentina, who’s there purely for show most of the time. She defends herself from a drunkard in the beginning of the movie, yet by the end she’s being shoved around, beaten, and taken advantage of. When her father calls her “Scruffy”, and they playfully punch each other half the time, why is she shown as this weak woman? Sure she’s sixteen, but when someone’s pulling her hair and bashing her face around, her first instinct would have been either to distract him and hit ’em hard, or start throwing whatever items are close by. If she’s not being beaten, she’s the general love interest for several people. From Anton, to Tony, and even Mr. Nick to a degree, they fight over her as if she were the last woman on the planet. The movie never mentions how old the rest of the group is, but when she’s getting hit on continuously by men seemingly much older than herself it gets disturbing. With that kind of lifestyle, I don’t know why she didn’t run away earlier, or in the very least make an effort to better her life rather than living on day to day wages.
The movie brags about having Heath Ledger in his last role, yet he doesn’t impress me as Tony. Admittedly he passed away before he could finish the movie, but I was hoping he’d give the character more of a personality. Half the time Tony is played either by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell when he visits the dream world. I have to wonder if it was how the actors were directed, or if they chose to keep Tony as close to Ledger’s version as possible, but Tony as a character was one dimensional. The movie never plays him as anything but a charmer and a sleaze. I wanted some kind of backstory, besides his dealings with the Russian mafia (who are shoved in for more conflict). I’m sure Ledger had wanted to do more with his role; it’s just a shame that the film doesn’t show his skills any better.
The idea of the film is creative. A pack of wandering performers helps people realize what they value (or abuse) in their life. The volunteers either leave the dream world in a state of self-importance and bliss, or they pay the ultimate price. I would have loved to see how the Doctor influenced people with his “stories”, since they show him alive during the Dark Ages and in Hindu art. The group doesn’t seem to perform any specific stories, rather they show up and try to get people interested purely by curiosity. While seeing each person’s dream world is great, why don’t they ever promote that rather than be so vague and expect people to willingly go into a mirror? The dream worlds never get violent, so long as the person’s nature isn’t violent to begin with; why didn’t they use this opportunity to help people explore their psyche? It could have helped the people make the right choices in their life, so long as the group had explained that the morally wrong choice led to their death. Most of the choices were obvious, so why couldn’t they be honest with people?
The concept of the movie is interesting, yet the way the movie is put together is just depressing. I have a hard time sympathizing with the characters, let alone liking any of them. There are insulting jokes and remarks, plus a ridiculous amount of plot holes. I’d say to watch the movie for the unique visuals and style, but outside of that, I can’t honestly give people a better reason to see this film.
I’m with you that the movie had a lot of potential but it wasn’t particularly showcased very well. I found myself quite confused for a lot of the movie and because I saw it in theatre, I couldn’t pause it or rewind to try and catch what everyone was saying.
And I’m so glad that someone picked up on how creepy it was that this sixteen year old girl was being hit on by all these older men.
Heath Ledger died halfway through making this film so that’s why he has all the different actors playing his character and I think he died quite early on so he really wasn’t in the film that much at the end of it.
Oh gosh, I know I wouldn’t have been able to understand anything in one sitting. It’s a movie that needs several watches to really understand what’s going on, which just frustrates me more seeing Valentina’s story over and over again.
porluciernagas had mentioned that all of the male characters seemed much older than Valentina, and I definitely agree. It’s rather jarring when they never really mention the ages of the other characters specifically.
Nah, you didn’t understand anything. Too much holding on to a plot and expecting entertainment (or justice for all the people inside the film). This kind of movies require much more thinking and fighting against ”what your eyes tell you to think”. It’s not there to entertain you, but to teach you something. Those are CHARACTERS, not real-life people, it’s not a documentary but a play. Also, watch Dr. Caligari, it’s very important for a review to compare the two movies since they’re communicating with each other.