TheZeroTheoremA unique pleasure awaits in the not-too-distant future for a film archivist or critic or festival organizer charged with organizing the definitive Terry Gilliam retrospective. The body of work he has amassed to date has already established Gilliam as a historically significant figure in cinema. With each subsequent release that begins with the placard “A Terry Gilliam Film,” his legacy expands. We know his vision: the steampunk designs of modern society strangling itself on ducts and tubes, cathode ray technology, and soul-sucking workplaces populated with mid-level drones assigned to tasks of mindless repetition. Outside, the infrastructure is crumbling, the cacophony of post-modern life is numbing, and the individual is targeted for extinction. The only escape is fantasy and women and a fantasy woman that exists only as long as one can whisper the word, “Hope.”

How will our future archivist order the films? If not all can be shown, which will be chosen? What handful of Gilliam movies best illustrates the breadth of his talent, the singularity of his vision? And which will be considered his masterwork? Brazil may be the only Gilliam film that received near unanimous approval from the critics. More often, his films receive a grade of C, with half the judges awarding A’s and the other half, a failing or near failing mark. His movies can be polarizing with some viewers displaying an almost-cult like loyalty while others are left disaffected and dismissive. Still, even his detractors must admit that Terry Gilliam’s failures are more interesting than most mainstream director’s successes. Each time he shoots an arrow at the heavens, we are the better for it, even when the effort falls short of the mark.

The heavens are squarely in Gilliam’s sights in his latest feature film, The Zero Theorem. The one-line synopsis – a computer program is charged with proving that life has no meaning – merely scratches at the surface of the existential angst at the center of this story. Metaphor, myth, religion, and philiosophy swirl, twirl, unfold and elude. The Zero Theorem is initially Gilliam’s most inaccessible work, but ultimately becomes his most hopeful.

Management as Matt Damon is God. Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, one of a legion of angels under the immediate supervision of Joby (David Thewlis) who spend their time “crunching entities.” Qohen is in a perpetual crisis of faith, so God charges him with reconciling belief and science in a cosmic ledger that must equal zero, the ultimate truth in the Universe. God sends his only son Bob (Lucas Hedges) and a reformed prostitute Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) to assist in the quest, while seeing everything from a camera affixed to the head of a crucified figure. After much resistance, Qohen submits and ascends from his abandoned church home to Heaven.

Or rather Management and the line supervisor, Joby, represent Hegel. They are the collective consciousness, the hive mentality that reflects the zeitgeist of the digitalized world, manipulating computer games that yield equations as building blocks toward a modern monument to nothingness, a quest toward zero equalling 100 percent, when all is nothing. Qohen then is Schopenhauer, the individual stripped bare. He no longer tastes. He has no cravings. He seeks out solitude and waits futilely for a message of meaning from a universe that cannot translate want into need. Qohen follows his philosophy to the logical end and achieves nirvana.

There are countless overlays of interpretation through which to view The Zero Theorem. The richness of Pat Rushin’s screenplay and Gilliam’s direction allow – in fact, encourage – such fanciful flights. Viewers in search of a reductive experience are unlikely to enjoy the movie.  While very enjoyable on a superficial level due to the art direction and the peformances, the film is a challenge and trying to parse out the story’s essence can be frustrating. One can even question whether Gilliam is mocking an audience that seeks to find meaning from a film in which the central character is told that waiting endlessly to be told the meaning of life results only in leading a meaningless life. Yet that giggle at the end of the film, after the screen goes to black, seems to reveal the real secret of the universe after all.

Waltz plays Qohen as Rain Man, an autistic computer savant who refers to himself in the first person plural. It is not an easy role, and Waltz does not display the certitude that characterized his recent Oscar-winning performances. He is buoyed, however, just as Qohen is, by those around him. Thierry is simply perfect as a vision of female redemption clad in a latex nurse’s outfit and thigh-hi stockings. Hedges is also outstanding as Bob; ditto for Thewlis as Joby.

The Zero Theorem is another C movie from Gilliam. Viewers will either love it or hate it in almost equal measure. It shares DNA with Brazil, and there are strains of The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys present as well. Only time can provde the perspective necessary to deliver the final judgment on the film. The Zero Theorem will have a prominent role in that future retrospective. How prominent a role may likely depend more on where we are as a society at that time than on how the film is perceived right now.

Four stars.

 

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