Imagine a world where a modern-day Messiah emerges, but instead of divine miracles, this figure possesses a peculiar supernatural ability – the power to unveil people’s most intimate videos without warning. This captivating premise forms the core of director Marat Sargsyan’s second cinematic endeavor, “The Grand Inquisitor,” which hails from the vibrant Armenian landscape of Vilnius. In this narrative, the all-powerful entity takes the form of an AI with an ordinary human name, Vermis. As Vermis’s transgressions accumulate, the authorities find themselves powerless, and any attempt at investigation is systematically thwarted.
This thought-provoking film is slated to be showcased at the upcoming Thessaloniki Film Festival’s Agora Crossroads Co-production Forum. As a Lithuanian project, it also plays a part in Agora’s fresh initiative, “Bridge to the North,” aimed at fostering potential creative collaborations between the European North and South.
Sargsyan’s initial foray into fiction, the intricate war drama “The Flood Won’t Come,” made its debut in 2020 as part of the Critics’ Week selection at the Venice Film Festival. The film delved into themes of war, peace, and religion, all without attempting to offer concrete solutions. The Armenian director acknowledges that the world is far more intricate, prompting a shift from stark reality to the realm of magical realism.
“The Grand Inquisitor” brings humanity face-to-face with AI within the context of their own existence. The film is produced by Klementina Remeikaite for Lithuania’s Afterschool, the same production company behind Laurynas Bareisa’s “Pilgrims,” the recipient of the prestigious 2021 Horizons Best Film Award in Venice, with the support of the Lithuanian Film Centre.
In an endeavor to reflect today’s world through the lens of social media’s role in human interactions, Sargsyan crafted the concept of a central character embodying ambivalence.
Vermis wields supernatural power, but the real harm he inflicts is tangible. This necessitates desperate efforts to undermine his authority, investigations, a cat-and-mouse game, and even a trial with confessions – all the requisite elements of a crime drama. However, the director chooses to describe it as a fairytale for adults or a mysterious drama.
Sargsyan characterizes his approach to the second film as self-ironic. “The questions it delves into are profound, and the themes it explores are intricate, but I aim to infuse it with humor through subtle details. We envision this project as one that resonates with a broad audience.” Expanding on the matter of accessibility, he further notes, “You don’t need to grasp the nuances of art to understand this film. It’s more of a story that anyone can relate to, regardless of specialized knowledge or tools.” Sargsyan emphasizes that it’s the tone that makes it a film for all, with the aspiration that it can connect with people from all walks of life.
Sargsyan clarifies that they do not actually use AI to depict this character. He humorously portrays how humans interact with AI, illustrating the constant evolution of both, minute by minute. Through Vermis, the writer-director perceives a metaphor for the transformations occurring in our contemporary era. The protagonist undergoes changes too after encountering a female investigator tasked with uncovering his motivations. “She embodies the expectations of humanity regarding AI in general,” Sargsyan explains, “but their interactions shape one another. As he gains more power, he also experiences growth akin to human development.” In this mutual relationship, the filmmaker discerns the intricate interplay between screens and real life.
Addressing the challenge of portraying an AI protagonist convincingly, Sargsyan notes that Vermis is a character of few words. “Not only that, but he listens, absorbing everything around him like an Alexa or our smartphones.” Given the character’s vigilance, the actor in question must rely heavily on facial expressions, gestures, and gaze. Sargsyan adds, “The methods I have in mind are designed to prepare the performer to convey a lot through minimal action. Such silence is meant to be provocative to everyone around; when someone remains so quiet, people are compelled to break the silence, to shatter it in some way.”
Sargsyan is quick to highlight that “The Grand Inquisitor,” despite its exploration of ambivalent questions, is not a straightforward critique of AI. “Our current predicament, viewed from an external perspective, is quite intriguing. What if AI could be personified? Humor plays a crucial role in addressing this question, which is why the film’s tone is lighter.” The film seems to convey a more optimistic perspective on the role of AI, though the director acknowledges that not everyone is currently utilizing artificial intelligence. Still, there are instances where trying it can be beneficial. “It’s not inherently negative, or at the very least, not solely negative.”
The Agora Crossroads Co-production Forum is scheduled to take place from November 5 to 9 in Thessaloniki, Greece.