When it was announced that the Terry Gilliam’s latest film would be playing at the Mostra, my excitement was huge. Gilliam is one of the true greats of cinema, a distinct, original voice and a creator of worlds. In 12 Monkeys, Brazil or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he has made several stone-cold classics (not to mention his work as a member of Monty Python) and has gathered a cult following amongst cinema goers. Thus expectations were naturally high for The Zero Theorem, his first feature film since 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Frustrated by the on-going saga of the financing of his Don Quixote, Gilliam took on The Zero Theorem and shot it for a relatively small amount of money in Romania. The result is a weird and wonderful small-scale science fiction film.
At the centre of the film is Qohen Leth (played by Christoph Waltz), a very odd man (he keeps referring to himself as ‘we’) who works as a ‘‘number cruncher’’ for Mancom, a big company of which we never really learn what they produce. He spends his life waiting for a call; a call which he believes will reveal the meaning of life to him, give an answer to the question about life, the universe and everything (spoiler: it’s not 42). Therefore he requests to work from home, and he is assigned to work on the demonstration of the zero theorem, a complicated mathematical formula, believed by many to be impossible. As a consequence, he lives his life in total isolation, and his only human contact is with Bainsley (played by French actress Mélanie Thierry), a woman who seems to be weirdly attracted to Qohen. It’s difficult so say anything more on the plot without revealing too much, but thematically and tonally the film is closest to Brazil, but it has more humour and optimism.
Christoph Waltz dominates the film (he is in every single scene), and his trademark charisma and charm make a character which could come across as irritating and annoying in less capable hands intriguing and somewhat likeable. He is surrounded by Thierry and an a-list supporting cast mostly responsible for comic relief. David Thewlis plays Waltz’s Mancom supervisor who is unable to remember his name in one of the year’s best/worst wigs. Matt Damon cameos as a character only referred to as ‘Management,’ whileTilda Swinton is Waltz’s virtual therapist. A scene that involves a bald Swinton rapping while wearing giant glasses is worth the price of admission alone.
The films biggest stars are however, in many ways not Waltz, Thewlis or Damon, but the cinematography, set-design and the costumes. Very few people know how to construct an image like Terry Gilliam, and despite an obviously limited budget (the majority of the film takes place in a single location) The Zero Theorem is filled with great photography (a frequent use of Dutch angles create a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia) and an extraordinary obsession for detail and little jokes in the background should reward multiple viewings.
With The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam is not going to win over any of his critics, but his fans should be pleased. One more thing: Could someone please just give Gilliam the money to make Don Quixote???