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The Zero Theorem by Terry Gilliam

September 4, 2013


I don’t know how it works for you, but for me the eye is quicker than the ear, so I have to admit that watching a film with subtitles can be useful, can give you some insight because if I had only heard the name of the protagonist of the new Terry Gilliam film – Qohen Leth (played by Christoph Waltz) – I would have needed much more time before making the Hebrew to Latin connection of Qohen Leth – Qoheleth – Ecclesiastes, the strangest of the Bible books gives a quick hint to the viewer of The Zero Theorem: Gilliam’s hero – just like his biblical namesake – is here to investigate the meaning of life, he ignores where and how to find it – once he got a phone call but the line went blank before he could hear what the caller wanted him for, maybe someone wanted to sell him something but Qohen – friends and colleagues call him Quinn because he uses the majestic plural, the film is full of puns and gags of this kind – that the telephone call was going to reveal him the meaning of life, so he spends his time anxiously waiting for a new call while working as a computer wizard for Mancom, a corporate enterprise – in a dystopian world owned by corporations – very busy trying to prove what they call the Zero Theorem, whose demonstration will prove that life has no meaning, Mancom’s it’s not a philosophical quest, they plan to make money out of it, following the logic of this evil corporate world Qohen is assigned to work on the Zero Theorem.

Does it sound like a Terry Gilliam film? I guess it does, and probably this is one of the best screenplays Gilliam has ever directed, Pat Rushin has to be a Gilliam fan to write such a perfect subject for the former Monty Python to work with, alas the funny thing is that while the common reproach moved to Gillian’s films has always been that the cinematic invention wasn’t sustained by a healthy script, my first reaction watching the Zero Theorem at Venezia 70 is that the film has a coherent and functional screenplay but it lacks the unconstrained cinematic genius we find in the best works by Terry Gilliam, is the guy old? was the budget too poor to realize something new? I don’t know, but I see the Zero Theorem more as an hommage made by a director who is a huge admirer of Gillian’s work rather than the new Gillian film. Of course it’s the new Gilliam film and it’s not that bad, but the funny/crazy situations aren’t extreme as in the past and the overall point of the film – Qohen’s search for the meaning of life – is not carried on with the brilliancy and the invention you expect from Terry Gilliam.

The Zero Theorem has limited scope, in the end Qohen is a disillusioned middle age guy – he has no love, no friends, no life outside of his job and his computer – maybe this is how mister Gilliam sees human life in our time, but this modern Qohen Leth can’t match the power of the original nor its depth, and certainly not the fun of Terry Gilliam’s Meaning of Life. In the end it’s a film with some good moments – the tekno-shrink played by Tilda Swinton or the tekno-whore played by Mélanie Thierry – but its entertainment value is just medium while its thought provoking virtue … equals zero.

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