Saturday, September 07, 2019

Burbank ’19: The Nine Billion Names of God (short)

This could be a case of Schumpeterian destruction on a cosmic scale. What would have taken a Tibetan Buddhist monastery fifteen thousand years to complete, can now be handled in one hundred days using the latest in super computing technology—circa 1957. Forget the Chinese invasion of 1950 and the occupation that continues to this day, because we are probably dealing with an alternate history throughout Dominique Filhol’s The Nine Billion Names of God, a short film adaptation of the Arthur C. Clarke short story, which screens tonight during the 2019 Burbank International Film Festival.

For the last three centuries, the Monks of Sera Mey have labored to compile all the possible names of God, by calculating every possible permutation of the letters in the alphabet. However, Lama Dilgo hopes to jump-start their mission by hiring the services of an IBM-like mainframe computer and two technicians to service it. Since the monastery has good credit (again, the Chinese invasion never seemed to happen in this world), Dr. Warner is happy to oblige. However, those two technicians do not like the answers when they start to ask: “then what?”

Nine Billion Names features some remarkably accomplished names in its credits, starting with Clarke, but also including cellist Gautier Capuçon performing Mark Yaeger’s original score. It sounds classy and looks absolutely amazing thanks to grandness of Athys de Galzain’s cinematography, which takes full advantage of the Tibetan vistas. (Actually, they are the Alps doubling for the Himalayas). This is a first-class period production that combines elements of Mad Men in the first half and Kundun in the second.

Yves Yan is terrific radiating spiritual insight and maturity as Lama Dilgo. Paul Bandey also helps keep the first act snappy as the deal-making Wagner. Still, ideas matter more than plot or characters in this film. In fact, the former becomes rather ambiguous. Filhol’s use of mandala quite strikingly represents the film’s spiritual themes. Yet, Names rather awkwardly casts the Tibetan monks in the light of a death cult, at least to some extent.

Admittedly, there are indeed some problematic implications that may be inferred from the film, but it is still unusually meditative and ambitious, especially by the standards of genre shorts. On a technical level, it is an impressively crafted and carefully polished work of cinema. In a weird way, it feels compatible with Clarke’s cinematic masterpiece, 2001, because both films take on cosmic dimensions as they unfold. Definitely worth checking out, The Nine Billion Names of God screens tonight (9/7) as part of the short film block Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror 6, at this year’s Burbank International Film Festival.