“Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse.” (Proverbs 2:12)
Few movies capture the perils of making bad choices as aptly as Terry Gilliam’s recent film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” At its heart “The Imaginarium” is a 21st century morality play where women and men make choices involving good and evil, and experience the painful costs when choosing evil.
The movie portrays how easily we choose to believe the lies of Satan, usually because they are born of the lies we tell ourselves. Terry Gilliam describes “Parnassus” as autobiographical. With the main character’s name referencing a mountain fabled in Greek mythology as home to the muses, sources of inspiration for the creative arts, Gilliam’s message seems to be that the cost for his own imagination was steeper than most would be willing to pay.
From the horse-drawn, double-decker wagon transporting portable stage and sleeping quarters, to the troupe’s costumes, Doctor Parnassus, the 1,000 year old leader, and his performers are an anachronism in modern London, appearing as if they’ve been transported from two hundred years earlier. When we first encounter them, Anton, dressed as the mythical Mercury, entreats drunken young people to come and enter the imaginarium. A weary Parnassus, dressed as an Indian or Pakistani mystic, sits cross-legged, eyes closed, apparently in a trance, the strings holding his seat clearly visible to the audience. His daughter, Valentina, wears the costume of a harem slave while she dramatically gestures toward her father. And Percy, the Doctor’s faithful dwarf assistant, is dressed as if he were the keeper of the harem. The onlookers--from these drunken revelers, to the tired housewives leaving the British version of Home Depot, to the harried rich in posh downtown London--don’t comprehend the cost of the Doctor’s frightening ability to take their dreams and substantiate them into an intoxicatingly wild, color-soaked dreamscape, leaving each guest blissfully drugged on the overpowering aroma of their own dreams.
While most would find living for one thousand years to be wearying, Doctor Parnassus’s fatigue comes from his first bad choice, when he asked Mr. Nick to let him live forever in exchange for his first child. As a monk in an isolated monastery, the chances of having the opportunity to become a father probably seemed remote at best. Whether prescient or not, Mr. Nick no doubt thought it worth the bet that in the eternity Parnassus would be alive he would sooner or later become a father.
While the movie is compelling from beginning to end, filled with enough twisting adventures to sate even the most inattentive, one scene epitomizes its tumultuous abandon while pointing (with unintended irony?), to those with eyes to see, the importance of the Holy Spirit.
When Mr. Nick walks into the monastery, taunting Doctor Parnassus with threats of taking away the story-telling abilities of the monks, Parnassus fears the world as he knows it will collapse. When all are silenced and yet the world continues to exist, Parnassus notes that somewhere in the world someone is telling a story, and someone will always be telling a story, enlivening the imagination and keeping the world alive.
Gilliam’s stunningly imaginative narrative pales, as do all the stories of women and men when compared with our creator’s own story. Rather than a fictitious morality fable about self-deception, greed, and foolhardy choices, God’s story involves the reclamation of his children, and of his entire creation, through the sacrificial death and resurrection of his innocent son. God’s story is not left hidden in the dust of two thousand years, but is given to each of us through communion with the Holy Spirit. In the testimony of his spirit we discover God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with us through his son, and continue each day to recover, through prayer and openness to his presence, the one story that reveals our lives as resurrected in Christ’s own risen life.
And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." (Hebrews 10: 15-17)
Main Cast: Tony: Heath Ledger; Imaginarium Tony #1: Johnny Depp; Imaginarium Tony #2: Jude Law; Imaginarium Tony #3: Colin Farrell; Valentina, Doctor Parnassus’s 16 year old daughter: Lily Cole; Doctor Parnassus: Christopher Plummer; Mr. Nick, a.k.a. Satan: Tom Waits; Percy, the Doctor’s faithful dwarf assistant: Verne Troyer; Anton, member of Doctor Parnassus’ troupe, in love with Valentina: Andrew Garfield.