The Zero Theorem is the newest film from ex-Monty Python star Terry Gilliam. It’s a flawed, strange work that discusses lofty issues about faith, meaning and purpose in a dystopian future that places an enormous spotlight on humanity’s excesses.
At the centre of the movie is a bizarre performance from Christoph Waltz and an allegory about religion. The film is clearly critical of big business and the increasing omnipresence of advertising, but it’s not always clear where the film stands in terms of religion.
Note: Do not read past this point until you’ve seen the film.
Can anyone spot an allegory?
The religious imagery in The Zero Theorem is clear. Qohen Leth, played by Waltz, looks an awful lot like a monk and lives a virginal lifestyle. He spends his entire life locked away alone inside his home, which is an old, abandoned church.
Qohen is completely devoted to his faith. His only calling in life is to wait for a phone call from an anonymous, deity-like figure, that will inform him of the true purpose of his existence.
As soon as Qohen is assigned to work on the titular equation – which will brand life worthless – the tempting influences of an attractive woman and a carefree young man are introduced into his life, as if to distract him from disproving his own faith.
Keeping the faith?
Much of The Zero Theorem feels staunchly atheist. Qohen is shown to be a miserable loner, whilst the faithless gallivant around the world in decadent pleasure, as shown by the characters of Bainsley and Bob.
The Management, essentially the protectors of “religion”, are always watching through cameras (hidden within the iconography of the crucifix), infringing the privacy of those who believe.
However, at the end of The Zero Theorem, Bob – personifying the carefree faithless – is left gravely injured with little prospect of recovery as Qohen is given the opportunity to reach his personal paradise.
Unpicking a biblical mess
So where does The Zero Theorem stand? Is it pro-religion or anti-faith? It’s much richer than either of those.
Bob and Qohen are binary oppositions. Qohen represents repressed, introverted belief, whilst Bob is the personification of the militant atheist.* Initially, neither is pretend to acknowledge or sympathise with the beliefs of the other, which is why they are both unfortunate – Qohen is housebound and aimless, whereas Bob is unable to find a partner.
Qohen’s assignment (solving the theorem) could even be seen as a test from his deity (represented by Management) to see if he is worthy of paradise. He is presented with the possibility that life is meaningless and also offered the temptations of sex and hedonism.
The tide of the film noticeably starts to turn when Qohen begins to open his mind to Bob’s lifestyle. He is shown that there is more to life than blindly waiting for his deity to show its face, and embraces this by destroying many of the objects within his church that symbolise his fundamentalism.
Crucially, Bob’s suffering at the film’s end is due to his refusal to acknowledge the virtue of Qohen’s faith in favour of hedonism.
In the climactic scenes of The Zero Theorem, Qohen goes even further than this by removing the cables from the machine that represents his religious establishment and throwing himself into the embodiment of the unknown.
By opening his mind in this way, Qohen proves himself worthy of attaining his paradise – a world in which simplicity is key and there need be no meaning.
Qohen has passed his test, but the cables of the machine reattach themselves, showing that religion is ready to test others who are marked out as particularly virtuous.
Regardless of whether any of this deep allegory was intended, The Zero Theorem is a very interesting film that merits multiple watches. It’s far from perfect, but it has plenty to say about some lofty topics.
That’s more than you can say for Hollywood.
Do you agree with my thoughts on The Zero Theorem? Add your interpretations and theories to the comments section below.
* You could go even further on this and say that Bob is the personification of the Devil sent by God (as in the Book of Job) to test Qohen’s virtue.