The first time I saw Gilliam's Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus I was struck by a few things. First being the amazing practical work on the oversize horse-drawn traveling circus.
Ignore the eye in the pyramid. Conspiracy is so passé...
Second, Tom Waits as the devil. How perfect is motherfucking Tom Waits as the devil? Gorgeous. Third was how incredibly well the guest actors, tasked with replacing Heath Ledger after his death, worked into the plot. Sure, Jude Law showing up as sort of a motivational dream speaker was a little bit of a longshot- but his perpetual glued-on grin is hilarious. Colin Farrel was an easy plant as a magazine model the daughter is obsessed with. But still. You lose your lead to overdose halfway into principle photography, and you manage to recover with some really creative workarounds that even, I might argue, add to the depth of the film. Lastly, and more unfortunately, was how poor some CG can play onscreen in contrast to ole fashioned craftsmanship.
But there was something else that struck me- the similarity between George/Tony's (Heath Ledger's) predicament and the Propaganda Due (P2) conspiracy.
In the film, Parnassus, along with his daughter and troop, discover a hanging man from beneath a bridge in london. He has a brick with strange marks in his pockets and similar symbols written on his forehead.
Later (spoilers follow,) it's revealed that he's stolen/embezzeled/swindled money from the Russian mafia. He eventually turns into a villain- difficult to predict on first viewing as it could go either way. Add to that the fact that Ledger's character switches faces. Here's the thing, though. The circumstance of Ledger's appearance is a clear analog of the murder of Italian banker Roberto Calvi in 1982. Even moreso than I thought-- a quick follow-up in conspiracy lore reminds us that Calvi was indeed hanged in London, not his native Italy.
The P2 conspiracy is generally regarded as one of the more concrete conspiracy theories of the 20th century. It has many confirmed facts as well as both money and paper trails. It deals with a Masonic lodge (yes, Freemasons, no, I don't think much of Masonic conspiracy.) What makes it abnormal, aside from the fact that it is documented, is the fact that certain members of this Italian Masonic lodge were using the cover of a Freemason lodge, itself a secret society, as cover for yet another internal secret society, Propaganda Due. (This is called a 'black lodge,' or a 'covert lodge,' operating independently within a Masonic lodge) P2 had been, among other things, laundering money for a major Italian bank with ties to the Vatican. This sounds crazy, but it's all there.
The P2 lodge is eventually linked to, among others, the murder of Roberto Calvi- a banker closely tied to the Holy See and the money flow of the Vatican. The day before the discovery of his body, he was dismissed from his bank and his secretary jumped to her death from the 5th story window of their office. Suspicious. Calvi had fled to London a few days before. He was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge (significant to Masons) in the financial district of London carrying about $15,000 in 3 different currencies, and more notably, bricks in his pockets- a Masonic symbol. One of the oaths taken during Masonic ritual is, approximately, should I betray my brothers may I be hanged over the rising tide with bricks in my pockets. Of course, if you needed to kill a banker and make it look like someone else did it, pinning it on the Masons via a series of clear ritualistic clues would be a great way to do it. And here is where the conspiracy breaks the reality-barrier and should be treated as an unprovable uncertainty. What is certain (via documentation, investigation, and trial) is that P2 existed, and a real assassin was hired to take care of Calvi by somebody. Unless he fled his country, withdrew tons of cash, then filled his own pockets with bricks and jumped off a bridge after strangling himself with a noose. Anyways.
I have to think that Gilliam read about Propaganda Due and used it as inspirational source material. In this context, the addition of the throat-reinforcing flute is inspired. The second viewing of this film was better than the first. I wonder if there are more hidden things in it. And I sort of wish there were more films like it. It reminds me of The Fisher King in a lot of ways, but more fantastic. It takes balls to mix classical theater and storytelling with contemporary film.