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Thursday February 29th 2024

The Zero Theorem | 2013

The Zero Theorem film location: Athenaeum, Bucharest, Romania
The Zero Theorem film location: Qohen’s workplace at ‘Mancom’: the lobby of the Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest, Romania | Photograph: wikimedia / (detail) fusion-of-horizons

Terry Gilliam exudes such easygoing joviality, it’s hard not to feel that there’s tremendous therapeutic value in making his films. All his anxiety seems to be siphoned off into the panicky visuals and cluttered, worrying sets.

He’s turned ‘dystopian’ into a genre of its own, and his view of the future (or alternative present) as a flustered piling of make-do technology on top of the creakingly decrepit is far more persuasive than the smooth gloss of traditional sci-fi.

Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a jittery, insecure cousin of Brazil’s Sam Lowry, number-crunches at a rickety computer while desperately waiting for the return of an interrupted phone call he believes will reveal the purpose of his existence.

While Brazil unforgettably gussied up already extravagant locations in London and the suburbs of Paris, The Zero Theorem builds its world on top of the remnants of Communist era Bucharest in Romania.

Astonishingly, the interior of Leth’s home – a decrepit, fire-damaged chapel – is not a real deconsecrated church but a huge studio set, designed by David Warren, and built in the MediaPro Studios at Buftea, 20 miles outside the city. The exterior, which looks much more like a purpose-built set, is 41 Strada Grigore Cobălcescu, northwest of the city centre.

The Zero Theorem film location: Athenaeum, Bucharest, Romania
The Zero Theorem film location: Qohen’s workplace at ‘Mancom’: exterior of the Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest, Romania | Photograph: wikimedia / Radu Ana Maria

The ‘Mancom’ facility, in which Leth is constantly cajoled and hassled by supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), was constructed inside the foyer of Bucharest’s Romanian Athenaeum, Strada Benjamin Franklin 1-3, the city’s major concert hall. Built in 1888, the circular hall occupies the foundations of the old Bucharest Riding School, and the lavish 12- pillared foyer occupies the vault beneath.

The Zero Theorem film location: Communist Memorial, Carol Park, Bucharest, Romania
The Zero Theorem film location: Bob takes Qohen for a break in the park: Communist Memorial, Carol Park, Bucharest, Romania | Photograph: wikimedia / Andrei Stroe

Convinced he’s dying, Leth is sent for a disability examination by a tribunal of medics (Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw) in a disturbingly industrial medical facility. In fact, it’s a vast electrical testing centre at ICPE, a technology park in Bucharest, housing the enormous, real machines which conjure up the brutal Thirties vision of the future seen in Metropolis.

After a year sequestered away in his dark apartment working on the Theorem of the title, Leth is taken for a day out in the park by his techie assistant, Bob (Lucas Hedges). The park, naturally, turns out not to be a comforting haven of leafy greenery but a joyless, bustling urban space. The forest of ‘Forbidden’ signs teeters almost on the verge of credibility when set against what is actually the foot of the towering Carol Park Mausoleum in Carol Park.

Named after King Carol I of Romania, the park on Filaret Hill in the southern-central area of the city, was originally a French-style garden was but predictably revamped under Communist rule, when it was renamed Parcul Libertății (Liberty Park).

The Mausoleum was built in 1963 as the ‘Monument of the Heroes for the Freedom of the People and of the Motherland, for Socialism’, the main structure standing atop a circular black granite base, which is what’s seen in the film. This rotunda originally housed the crypts of Communist dignitaries, but after 1991 they were replaced by the remains of soldiers fallen in World War I, and the mausoleum rededicated to the Unknown Soldier. It’s closed to the public.