What if a new Messiah appeared today, but his supernatural power was to release people’s intimate videos unprompted? Such a beguiling premise shapes Armenian Vilnius-based director Marat Sargsyan’s sophomore feature, “The Grand Inquisitor.” In it, the omnipotent creature is an AI that looks like a human being and has a human name, Vermis. Soon, his crimes pile up, the authorities are helpless, and any investigation thwarted.
The film will be presented next week at Thessaloniki Film Festival’s Agora Crossroads Co-production Forum. As a Lithuanian project, it is also part of Agora’s newest initiative, Bridge to the North, linking the European North and South for potential creative partnerships.
Sargyas’s debut fiction feature—the labyrinthian war drama “The Flood Won’t Come”—premiered in 2020 as part of the selection at Venice’s Critics’ Week. The film explored themes such as war, peace and religion, without the need to reach for any particular solutions. The Armenian director knows the world is much more complicated than that and allows a shift from stark reality to magical realism.
“The Grand Inquisitor” brings humans face to face with AI, on their own turf. The film is produced by Klementina Remeikaite for Lithuania’s Afterschool, the company behind Laurynas Bareisa’s “Pilgrims” (winner of the 2021 Horizons best film award in Venice), with the support of the Lithuanian Film Centre.
In an attempt to show the world as it is today through the role of social media in human interactions, Sargsyan came up with the idea of a central figure that embodies ambivalence.
Vermis may have a supernatural ability, but the harm he causes is real. That’s why there are desperate attempts to undercut his powers, investigations, a cat and mouse game, even a trial and confessions: all the necessary crime drama tropes. But the director prefers to call it a fairytale for adults, or a mysterious drama.
He describes his approach to the sophomore film as self-ironic. “The questions it explores are serious and the themes it touches upon are sophisticated, but I’m trying to lighten it up with comic details. We envision this project as more audience-driven.” Elaborating on the issue of access, he adds: “It’s not the case that you have to understand the particularities of the art, if you want to understand this film. It’s more like everybody can understand the story of this extraordinary guy without any special knowledge or tools to do so.” The tone, Sargsyan continues, is what makes it an audience film with the hope it can speak to everybody, everywhere.
“We don’t actually use AI to represent this character,” Sargsyan clarifies, “but I wanted to show in a humorous way how we as humans are dealing with AI, that it is constantly changing, and we are changing as well, minute by minute.” In the figure of Vermis, the writer-director sees a metaphor for the transformations of our times. But the protagonist changes as well, after he meets a female investigator who’s tasked with uncovering his motives. “She’s vested with the expectations of human beings towards AI in general,” Sargsyan explains, “but they influence each other and as much as he becomes more powerful, he also grows as humans do.” In this two-way relationship, the filmmaker sees also the mutual entanglements between screens and life.
On the topic of how an actor could veritably portray an AI protagonist, Sargyan explains that Vermis is very silent. “Not only that, but he listens, constantly absorbing everything around him like an Alexa or our smartphones.” Since the character is so vigilant, the actor in question will have to rely more on his facial expressions, gestures and gaze. He adds: “The methods I have in mind are designed to prepare the performer to act without acting a lot, really. It’s a welcome challenge because such silence has to be provocative for everyone around: when someone is too quiet, people want to break the silence, to shatter it somehow.”
Sargyan is quick to point out “The Grand Inquisitor,” even if it explores ambivalent questions, is not a straightforward AI critique. “Seen from the outside, our current predicament is very interesting. What would it be like if AI could be a person? In answering this question, humor is also important, and that’s why the film’s tone is lighter.” The film seems more positive about the role of AI, but the director adds that even if not everyone is using artificial intelligence these days, sometimes when you try it, it helps. “It’s not a bad thing, or at least not only a bad thing.”
The Agora Crossroads Co-production Forum takes place Nov. 5 – 9 in Thessaloniki, Greece.