Film critics and movie enthusiasts alike have long been awestruck when confronted with the eccentric mind of director Terry Gilliam (“12 Monkeys”), a Monty Python alum. His visualizations can only be characterized as schizophrenic, aberrant fascinations that take full advantage of the free range of graphical capabilities offered by modern cinema. Gilliam’s latest fare, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” is an epic tale that bears the atypical themes of his previous works — surrealism, fantasy and hellish spectacle — while also unintentionally plunging viewers into new depths of morbidity by means of Heath Ledger’s posthumous appearance.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”

At the State
Sony

“Imaginarium” tells the tale of a wizened old man known as Doctor Parnassus who leads the humble life of a monk. He finds purpose in the medium of spiritual storytelling, a process he and his followers consider essential in facilitating earthly order. Desiring more time to tell these stories, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, “Up”) makes a Faustian bargain with the classiest Satan (Tom Waits, “Coffee and Cigarettes”) since Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Upon winning his mysterious wager, Parnassus earns eternal life.

Unfortunately, he underestimates the frivolity of humankind, and his stories soon become trivial in an increasingly fast-moving world. Seeing Parnassus’s despaired condition, the devil exploits him with another, more sinister wager: The vitality of youth and the woman of his desires will be given to him, so long as he relinquishes his firstborn child when he or she reaches the age of 16. Years later, as Parnassus’s daughter approaches her 16th birthday, the Doctor realizes he must satisfy the terms of a final diabolical wager to save his daughter’s immortal soul.

Though viewers have come to expect the ominous in Gilliam’s films, there’s not enough set-up in “Parnassus” for what must be one of the most haunting scenes in recent film history. We are first introduced to Heath Ledger’s character Tony as he hangs by a noose under a bridge, his lifeless expression and deathly pallor accentuated by intermittent flashes of lightning. Though we later find Tony alive and well due to an ingenious method of sustenance, nothing can remove the grotesque premonition of a dead Heath Ledger from the minds of the audience.

Tony joins Parnassus as a makeshift marketing representative, convincing the careless, materialistic inhabitants of our modern world to embrace the anachronistic moving stage upon which the Doctor performs his masterwork. Parnassus’s imaginarium, which exists behind an enigmatic onstage mirror, is akin to the musings of Salvador Dali; it’s a landscape in which ladders extend to the stratosphere, giant lily pads bridge an endless oceanic expanse and winding rivers form a purgatorial rift between the hellish and the heavenly.

Bizarrely detached as this fantasy world may sound, one of the film’s biggest shortcomings is the unjustifiably short time it spends exploring the facets of the imaginarium. The immersive atmosphere behind the mirror is every bit as captivating as “Avatar,” but without necessitating any hipster Real-3D glasses.

Gilliam managed to resourcefully combine the shots of the late Ledger with the contributions of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in a surprisingly seamless manner that may earn “Imaginarium” a rightful designation as the director’s magnum opus. Unlike the oft-undeserved attention many talentless artists earn posthumously, Heath Ledger’s final performance proves he left us at the acme of his acting career, and it serves to remind us all of just how much we sorely miss him.

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