Analysis – What does The Zero Theorem say about religion?

Christoph Waltz leads complex sci-fi The Zero Theorem
Christoph Waltz leads complex sci-fi The Zero Theorem

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.
 

Christoph Waltz and Bob are binary oppositions in The Zero Theorem
Christoph Waltz and Bob are binary oppositions in The Zero Theorem

 
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.

 

Paradise for Christoph Waltz in the final scene of The Zero Theorem
Paradise for Christoph Waltz in the final scene of The Zero Theorem

 

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.

8 thoughts on “Analysis – What does The Zero Theorem say about religion?

  • 30/03/2014 at 13:39
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    I agree for the most part, except that I’m still trying to pin down the significance for Bob’s unexplained fever/collapse.

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    • 30/03/2014 at 13:53
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      It seemed to me that his collapse was solely due to his refusal to acknowledge the alternative (read: religious) viewpoint of Qohen.

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        • 15/09/2014 at 19:40
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          Cuz q bob n management pose as the holy trinity. Note that q refers to himself as i instead of we just before bob fells sick, n a few min later the movie climaxes.

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  • 12/09/2014 at 17:26
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    I just saw the film last night and had mixed feelings. I adore all the visual imagery but had trouble finding a driving force behind the film. This analysis is really valuable to me and helps me view the film in a different light. Thanks so much!

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  • 22/09/2014 at 04:34
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    Just saw the film last night, and have been ruminating on it since. A few things I’ve gleaned from the Production notes and a second viewing:

    Pat Rushin’s original screenplay was inspired by the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the name Qohen derived from Quoheleth (King Solomon), traditionally attributed as the Biblical author. The main concerns; Life is absurd and “Vanity of vanities,” since death (and unforeseen occurrences) awaits both the good and the wicked. Thus, the “wise” are admonished to enjoy life, drink, and companionship while they still can.

    In contrast, Gilliam stresses the value of Solitude, as being the only place in a hyper-connected world that one can find peace and self-understanding.

    So what about Qohen’s acceptance of the Void, or Black Hole, or whatever that vortex lurking there in his dreams and the Neural Net? Did the setting sun represent a Heavenly, or Hellish afterlife? Or was it a dimming out and descent into Oblivion? I saw it as the former, a terrifying Collapse into a Solipsism (Bob’s rebuke of Qohen’s “Life happens,” with, “Life happens to Everybody! Stop thinking of your OWN damn selves!”). The Solipsistic fate seems more likely if you follow Qohen’s Nihilistic fear and anxiety to their logical extremes.

    And what about those crunching entities? Was Qohen and his cubicle-mates creating Consciousnesses and then storing them in the Neural Net? Does this imply that the universe Q resided in is some sort of elaborate Computer Program or Simulation?

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  • 05/11/2014 at 18:40
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    In the scene where Bob is attempting to explain the Zero Theorem, he is describing (in reverse) Aleister Crowley’s 0=2 theory on a depiction of the LUST tarot card (Crowley’s version of the Strength card), which normally shows a woman delicately overcoming a lion and opening its mouth (in Crowley’s case, it’s Babalon riding the Beast). The traditional depiction is specifically played out in the next scene, in which Bainsley helps dislodge an olive from Qohen’s throat, with a package on the floor near them that says GENTLE. Shortly afterwards, Qohen personifies the Hermit tarot card by holding a match, while he recollects another encounter with Bainsley in which she says she loves MYSTERY – another wink to Babalon. Qohen’s choking highlights the throat chakra corresponds to the sphere of Daath and the Abyss in Qabalistic and Thelemic views, which is a false sephirah because human knowledge is transitory and does not apply “above” the Abyss; It all adds up to nothing, or no-thing. It’s also represented as a wasteland (the poop, as Bob puts it in his explanation) that is inhabited by the demon Choronzon – symbolized by the “Management” in his black-and-white zebra clothing: “Within the mystical system of Crowley, the adept reaches a final stage where he or she must cross the Abyss, that great wilderness of nothingness and dissolution. Choronzon is the dweller there, and his job is to trap the traveler in his meaningless world of illusion. However, Babalon is on just the other side, beckoning. If the adept gives himself to her—the symbol of this act is the pouring of the adept’s blood into her graal—he becomes impregnated in her, then to be reborn as a master and a saint that dwells in the City of the Pyramids.” One story about Crowley’s encounter with the demon is that he transformed him into a zebra and sold him to a zoo…The black/white symbolism reflects the attempt to unify all opposites: “The concept contained within Babalon is that of the mystical ideal, the quest to become one with all. This process necessarily requires refusing to deny anything, becoming perfectly passive in the world, allowing all experience to come forward, abandoning oneself into the deluge of sensation.” This is precisely what Qohen does at the end of the movie. Management keeps Qohen distracted from his “call” or will (also associated with the throat chakra) by having him “crunch entities” in an attempt to make sense of esoteric knowledge, which we’ve already said is illusory. In the final scene, Qohen finally says to hell with it all, and surrenders to the Abyss, and arrives back in his imaginal palm tree paradise…and then gives up the plastic volleyball (false sephirah of Daath) for the sun (normally Tiphareth, but in this case Kether, the crown, unity with God / Infinity) and lets it descend into the waters of manifestation – symbolically bringing heaven to earth. There’s a theory that when we’re born, we are taught that God is outside of us, and thus most of our own creative energy is separated from us, suspended above our heads, until we’re able to remember who we are (the Lion King gives another powerful example of this same theme). But there are perhaps two ways of interpreting that concept: It may be either a solipsistic delusion, in which you think you’re the only real creator and everyone else has been dreamed up by you (perhaps Bainsley/Babalon is a thoughtform he creates for his own pleasure). Or, you might perceive it as sharing your consciousness with all other creators, thus no longer doing the same work in separate cubicles (symbolically speaking), as Qohen complains of earlier in the film. You might use the analogy of the wave/particle theory of quantum physics, and apply that to your identity; When the ego is allowed to recede into the background, you’re no longer separate from the rest of creation. That’s a rather over-simplified explanation, but I think that’s what the movie is basically leaving you to wonder about. Also, I watched the movie WRECK IT RALPH recently and noticed this exact same Thelemic progression, and there are some synchronistically intertwining themes between the two films…But I’ll let you explore that one for yourself. 😉

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  • 23/04/2015 at 18:32
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    Just saw the film last night, still thinking about it. My main impression is that it is actually supports the idea of pro-faith, or religion, spirituality, etc whatever you would like to call it. Q sees that life has no purpose, it all is for nothing except to receive that phone call to explain his purpose. While everyone around seems happy to just go along with technology and be “happy” in this uptopia, Q is not. Everybody’s “religion” in society appears to be serving their own hedonism and not exploring their purposes further. Q is different, he recognizes that’s not his “religious” purpose though. He lives like a monk in an abandoned church of all places, how ironic.

    Management sees that Q questions the meaning of life and isn’t content like the rest so he uses him to mgmt’s advantage to prove the nothingness of it all. I think mgmt underestimated Q’s faith however. I interpreted that Mgmt is discontent with life as a while because he knows that his son Bob is dying and he can’t do anything to stop it, life has no meaning in a sense. His company’s purpose is to prove that all of life is for nothing. Mgmt’s son Bob, rebelled against his Dad and didn’t want to prove that life is nothing. My guess is because Bob knows he is sick and wants to enjoy life while he is still alive, Bob represents hope and faith. He influences Q to live life, and hang onto hope. Q isn’t able to fully live free so he doesn’t run away with Bainsley even after she asks him to. When Bob dies, mgmt sees that Q wasn’t able to help and fires him. Q, in my opinion decides to end his existence with this life and explore the meaning of whatever existence lies beyond. That’s just my opinion on the film.

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