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The Brothers Grimm
Directed by Terry Gilliam
118 minutes (PG-13 rating)
Dimension Films

Commentary by Kevin Miller

It is rather difficult to pin down exactly what is wrong with director Terry Gilliam’s new film The Brothers Grimm, but if I had to choose one adjective to describe it, it would be “disjointed.” One thing Gilliam does appear certain of in this film, however, is his perspective on the spiritual realm. Not only does he affirm it, he seems to suggest that we ignore it to our peril—although he is far too cagey to come right out and say so.

To summarize briefly, the film is about Jake and Will Grimm, two brothers who travel the German countryside during the late 1800s conning ignorant peasants into believing they can rid their villages of enchanted creatures. They have a good time of it until the French occupying forces catch on to their ruse. Once captured, the Grimms are presented with a choice: Either help the French uncover who or what is causing young girls to disappear from a nearby village or… die. Being sensible blokes, the Grimms take door number one.

However, what looked like an easy way out quickly becomes more complicated when they discover that this time the enchantment they are up against is real. Suddenly, death at the hands of the French doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative. Then again, perhaps this is the brothers’ big opportunity to prove they are more than mere charlatans; a chance to make up for all the times they ripped people off and perform a public service instead.

So, with the help of a local “woodswoman” named Angelika and their bumbling, would-be French executioner, they set off to do just that. The adventure that follows includes nothing less than a wicked witch, an enchanted forest, a werewolf, a frog prince, the Gingerbread Man, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and several other characters and elements from the real Grimm brothers’ classic fairy tales.

This could have been a brilliant film, especially if you consider all the possibilities that arise when you open the door for the Grimm brothers’ yarns to morph with reality into an unsettling mobius strip of a story. Gilliam and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have created a lot of great moments here, but in many cases these moments fail to connect to other great moments in a cohesive way. Even so, Gilliam’s treatment of the spiritual realm can give those willing to ignore the story’s jagged edges some interesting ideas about integrating the sacred with the secular by using characters to represent a number of competing points of view and then letting us decide which is best.

At one end of the spectrum are the French, who refuse to acknowledge that the spiritual world exists. Near the middle are the Grimm brothers. They are not really convinced either way, and they don’t seem to care much either, just so long as they can continue to exploit the faithful for material gain. Further toward the other end of the spectrum are the peasants, who actually take the spiritual world seriously. The problem is, rather than liberate them, their knowledge of the supernatural paralyzes them with fear, and their “faith” devolves into mere superstition.

The final type, represented best by Angelika, believes in the spiritual realm but is able to hold it in proper perspective. She doesn’t deny it, isn’t afraid of it, and doesn’t use it to manipulate others. Instead, she has formed a right relationship with the spiritual realm so that it clarifies her life rather than muddling it, bringing freedom and hope rather than fear and bondage.

In this sense, Gilliam’s film functions as somewhat of a “spiritual Rorschach test.” As a viewer, it may make you wonder where you fit on the spectrum. Do you mock? Do you fear? Do you even care? Or do you approach the spiritual world in a way that goes beyond mockery, fear, and apathy, with an attitude that some might call faith?

Of course, acknowledging the existence of the spiritual realm is one thing, but deciding exactly whose definition of that realm we are to accept is an entirely different matter, and Gilliam offers no insights here. Something he does make clear though is that despite our best efforts to define the supernatural in our own way—preferably in a way that suits us—the spiritual world has a way of defining itself for us. Then the real question becomes whether or not we are willing to accept what it has to say.

Copyright @ 2005 Kevin Miller .


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