The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Ending Explained & Film Analysis

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus: a beautiful fairy tale or a parable about our world?

The first impression of the “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” – oh, yes, this is a fairy tale for children from twelve and older! Indeed: a company of wandering artists, an old man and his charming daughter, an extraordinary mirror, juicy and at the same time rustic scenery, funny episodes, a magical atmosphere – all this has been seen more than once in other fairy-tale films. But what is an end in itself for other directors, for Terry Gilliam is only a creative device with the help of which he tells a very complex postmodern story. It has little in common with a fairy tale: rather, it is a philosophical parable about the structure of the world and the human soul.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

Who are Dr. Parnas and Mr. Nick?

The confrontation between the mysterious Dr. Parnassus and the charismatic Mr. Nick is the main plot intrigue, but who are these two? Is it really nothing more than a former monk, and now the owner of the booth, and one of the devil’s assistants, as they say in some reviews?

With Mr. Nick it is easier: this sleek gentleman with a mustache is undoubtedly the devil himself. This is evidenced by both his interest in souls and his name. “Old Nick” – this is how the devil has long been called in England, not wanting to pronounce his real name (cf. Russian “unclean” or “crafty”). In the world of looking glass, Nick can appear in the guise of a giant snake, more precisely, a snake, and a snake in the Christian tradition is one of the incarnations of the devil. I must admit that Nick in the film is not the most evil and terrible devil: he is not devoid of humor and even demonstrates a penchant for fair play. We can say that this is a modern professional devil, acting under the motto “Nothing personal.”

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

Dr. Parnas, unlike Nick, is a very mysterious figure. His name is clearly associated with Mount Parnassus, sacred to the ancient Greeks, where not only the muses lived, but also the center of the earth. The stage image of Anton, the doctor’s assistant, who beckons the viewer in the costume of the god Mercury, also refers us to antiquity. But Parnassus’s memories of the period of his monasticism do not transfer the viewer to ancient Greece.

It seems that Dr. Parnassus is associated with a wide variety of religions, from polytheism to Buddhism. He has supernatural powers: his “Imaginarium” only works when Parnassus falls into a trance. He competes on an equal footing with the devil. Although he is no longer immortal, he also resembles a mortal little, despite the very human tendency to get drunk in a moment of despair. And, most importantly, he, like Nick, creates his own universe.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

All this suggests that Dr. Parnassus is something like a kind wandering deity, patron of art and fantasy. It remains to find out why he is wandering with his booth.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

What is “Imaginarium”?

Dr. Parnas offers everyone who has the courage to take a fascinating walk through the extraordinary world of illusions and dreams. Having passed through the mirror-portal, a person enters the space that exists in his imagination – and in the imagination of Dr. Parnassus. A walk in a fantasy world can cause euphoria, extraordinary uplift, but it can also lead to hell – it all depends on the individual.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

Of course, the “Imaginarium” is nothing more than an expanded metaphor of the spiritual consolation that all religions and all the arts of the world have offered people for centuries. But in the modern world, pragmatism and the desire to live here and now prevail, and therefore things are going badly for Dr. Parnassus. The audience is not interested in his old-fashioned booth, and even his daughter Valentina dreams of very commonplace and earthly things: a cozy home, a happy family, material well-being, and not about spiritual quests.

Everything changes with the appearance of Tony Shepard, whom Valentina and Anton save from death.

What’s the point of Tony Shepard’s storyline?

The mysterious adventurer Tony Shepard is the embodiment of the business and pragmatic element so alien to Parnassus. It clearly shows what happens to spirituality, fantasy, religion and other subtle matters if they fall into the hands of dealers. At first, competent PR provides an influx of neophytes, the box office is quickly replenished, but everything ends in complete collapse.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

With the advent of Tony Shepard, magic turns into a means of profit, which means that the world of Dr. Parnassus is doomed. Alas, nowadays religion, art, and spiritual practices for the most part have become options for business. It is noteworthy that the marks on Tony’s forehead, clearly visible at the moment when he was taken out of the loop, are suspiciously similar to the Masonic ones.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

Is the director hinting that modern spiritual teachings and near-religious movements, such as the New Age, are in the hands of the Freemasons? Who knows. The beauty of the film lies in the fact that it does not present ideas directly, “head-on”, and does not impose anything. But it is obvious that the real seducer for everyone, including Valentina, is not old-fashioned Nick, but Tony.The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

Why are four different actors playing Shepard?

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

Tony Shepard was originally supposed to be played by one actor – Heath Ledger, who died unexpectedly in the midst of filming. Gilliam faced a difficult task, which he solved in such a way that the fateful coincidence of circumstances went to the benefit of the film. According to the new version of the script, Tony changes through the looking glass depending on who is looking at him and how he wants to see him. Played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, the viewer sees three Tony – different and at the same time subtly similar. This move not only saved the film, but also gave it additional depth. By the way, Depp, Lowe and Farrell gave their royalties to Ledger’s little daughter.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden Meaning

What kind of mafia is chasing Shepard?

The colorful bandits chasing the cunning Tony look not so much scary as funny, although they are quite capable of crime. Their ethnicity is not clearly defined, but the mention of the Maidan and the search for shelter under the wide skirts of a giant “mother” in characteristic clothing suggests that this is a Ukrainian mafia. Having made what is called a rustle, she safely returns through the looking glass to her motherland, to her native huts, gardens and other ethnographic surroundings. Thus, the director makes it clear that the real threat to the Western world is by no means semi-mythical Eastern European organized crime. Moreover, Ukrainian mafiosi, by and large, are victims: after all, their money was pocketed by the charming Tony.

What’s the point of the final scene?

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Explaining the Film's Hidden MeaningWith the loss of his van and daughter, Dr. Parnassus was in a very bad position. He looks awful and does not dare to appear in the eyes of Valentina, whose affairs, on the contrary, are going brilliantly: she got everything she dreamed of. But does this mean that Parnas lost? Of course not. Firstly, his magical little show – albeit in the form of a puppet theater – continues to exist and awaken the imagination of the audience. Secondly, the devil did not get Valentine: she lives a normal life in the ordinary world. Thus, the next round of the eternal battle between God and the devil in the hearts of people, about which Dostoevsky, beloved by Gilliam, wrote, again ended in a draw.

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