Terry Gilliam’s latest film opens with a naked man sitting in a chair in the middle of an abandoned church, gazing at a computer display of a vast black hole in space. The computer display and surrounding items of technology identify the film as being set in some futuristic period. The surrounding church setting creates a contrast with the past of Western civilization, intertwined with the growth of the Christian faith itself.
It is a neat piece of visual shorthand for Gilliam’s story about a man tasked with proving the meaning of life. The titular theorem is posed by the question of whether existence itself has any meaning at all, beyond some cosmic accident that will eventually be wiped away.
Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is the man judged insane enough by his employers to be tasked with the job of proving life is ultimately nothing. After all, he spends his days waiting for a phonecall from God to explain what the meaning of his life is.
In this futuristic society – the shoot took place in a beautifully transformed, and chaotic, Bucharest – culture has become deconstructed to the point of meaninglessness. Passersby on the street are dressed in garishly coloured clothing; advertisements make bland promises of happiness and satisfaction; and revellers at a party are shown dancing to music played through mobile devices. Everyone is trapped in their own world, an insulated and artificially constructed ‘self’.
What makes Qohen different, beyond his general skittish nature and unusual hairlessness, is his insistence on referring to himself as ‘we’. He has no interest in distracting himself with entertainment, preferring instead to spend all his time working. He petitions his supervisor Jobby (David Thewlis) for permission to work from home and is commissioned by Management (Matt Damon) to work on the Zero Theorem.
Anyone who has previously worked on the project has been driven mad but, in Management’s opinion, Qohen is already insane, so this should not make any difference. In this respect the character is pitched by screenwriter Pat Ruskin as a ‘techno-monk’, a man who has dedicated his life in this future of heedless technological innovation to religious contemplation.
At one point Qohen discusses his past debauchery, bringing to mind St Augustine’s timeless quote ‘Please God make me good, but not just yet’. Following an event which triggered his extreme personality shift, Qohen has been waiting for some sign that will reveal the secret of his existence.
There is an intriguing conflict at play in the character’s motivations. He is obsessed with discovering the meaning of his life, but at the same time works diligently for a business that reduces all of human culture to digitized bits of data.
Qohen comes to see Management as something of a satanic presence, placing temptation in his path to prevent him from discovering the meaning of his life.
This temptation first comes in the form of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), with whom Qohen has a staged meeting at a party held by Jobby. Thierry’s coquettish performance and accented English lend her character an otherworldly presence in the film.
Given that Ruskin based the name Qohen Leth on the Hebrew title for the book of Ecclesiastes – Qoheleth – it is tempting to suggest Bainsley is herself a version of the Gnostic concept of Sophia.
The other main figure in Qohen’s life is Bob, Management’s son, played by Lucas Hedges. Addressing everybody as ‘Bob’, because he argues learning names takes up too much brain-space, this young prodigy soon develops an unusual bond with the techno-monk.
Seeing in Bob a younger version of himself, Qohen begins to speak in first-person pronouns and ventures outside of his converted church-home.
Bob is also a representation of the essential urge to freedom of human nature, both in his adolescent uninterest in the corporate ambitions of his father and his refusal to work on the ‘Zero Theorem’ project. He is clearly capable of solving the proof, but rejects it as he will not be another tool for his father to use to make money. Ironically instead of facilitating Qohen’s solving of the proof he, like Bainsley, becomes subverted by contact with the monk.
Eventually Qohen’s choice becomes that of whether he is a free man, or a tool of Management. Gilliam’s futuristic religious parable ends on a bittersweet note, but gives much food for thought in its digressions and offhand whimsy.