There’s a lot of religious imagery and references in Terry Gilliam’s latest film, and it doesn’t take much research to discover that the protagonist’s name, Qohen Leth, is a reference to Qoheleth (or Koheleth), the Hebrew name for the book that’s called Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Kohen is the Hebrew word for priest, and the film character Qohen (played by Christoph Waltz) is a man of faith who believes God contacted him on the phone and tried to tell him the meaning of life before Qohen dropped the phone and missed the message. He’s waiting for God to call back, all the while feeling he’s about to die.
The story is set in a dystopian future where everything, even the Occupy Wall Street movement, has become a candy-colored, personalized, you’re-so-fucking-specialized advertisement. Qohen works for a corporation called Mancom, “crunching entities,” which seems to involve solving mathematical equations that are then used in the design of information technology such as virtual reality suits. Eventually Management (Matt Damon) assigns him to the job of solving the Zero Theorem, which proposes that the universe will eventually return to the nothingness from which it inexplicably sprang. Qohen is happy to work on whatever project is assigned to him, as long as he can be near his phone awaiting God’s call.
As I say, there’s a lot of religious business is this film. Qohen lives in an abandoned church that was formerly inhabited by a brotherhood of monks who had taken vows of chastity, poverty, and silence. The name of the corporation, Mancom, seems to refer to the secular world of Man, as opposed to the spiritual world of God. Qohen’s supervisor is named Joby, the first part of which is pronounced like the biblical Job — hero of one of the Books of Wisdom of the Old Testament, just like Ecclesiastes. And what of Qohen’s brilliant teenage co-worker, Bob? Could it be a reference to the Church of the Subgenius? Meanwhile the prostitute, Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), hired by Mancom to relax Qohen, avers a distaste for intercourse, preferring instead a technologically-intermediated tantric relationship.
Ah, yes, the serpent in the garden. Qohen basically leads a monastic life of self-denial himself (or theirselves, since he refers to himself in the the third person plural), but Bainsley tempts him to rejoin the world of carnal pleasures. Paradoxically, the offer only exists in a virtual fantasy world. What’s interesting is how Qohen’s decision to give in to his desires precipitates a crisis. Having watched the film twice now, I’m still not sure why Bainsley makes the choice she does at that moment or why Mancom wants it that way. Perhaps Mancom fears that actual pleasure, rather than the dream of it, will distract Qohen from the faith that drives his work for them. Bainsley seems to represent the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, who concluded that all earthly striving is vanity, so we should eat, drink, and be merry while we can, yet there’s a strange contradiction in the pleasure she offers, perhaps caused by her own confusion and pain.
The virtual world of creative imagination is the main theme of Gilliam’s whole career. In many ways The Zero Theorem parallels the treatment of that theme in Brazil. As I believe John Clute observed, from a political perspective in Brazil the torturers win, although from a personal perspective Sam Lowry escapes to freedom in a dreamworld. Something similar happens in The Zero Theorem, but it’s perhaps more mysterious — more religious. Perhaps this is Gilliam’s agreement with Clute’s critique. He has said he considers The Zero Theorem not a comedy, but a tragedy.
Or perhaps its just a continuation of his Romantic rejection of the technological world, here embodied in the Neural Network, which is a science fictional advancement on the internet. For me the final image is ambiguous, much as the final image in Brazil is. Qohen has become one with nothingness, but does that mean he’s a zero? Well, I suppose the use of a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” over the end crawl tips Gilliam’s hand. Qohen has become a god of sorts, but it’s a god of nothing. Perhaps the name Leth is also a reference to the River Lethe, whose waters bring forgetfulness and oblivion.