Cinema has always been flooded with encounters with alien civilizations in the form of
some kind of intergalactic message ("Contact" being the latest installment in the series). This
results in the predictable story of how Earth scientists struggle to decipher the message and
then somehow contact is established with what proves invariably to be a much higher
But what if scientists found out that the message originated from the Earth itself thousand of years ago? The movie would suddenly shift from science fiction to archeology.
What if religion got involved in it? The movie would suddenly downshift from fast action to spiritual meditation.
What if a famous religious figure (possibly Jesus himself) turned out to be the likely originator? The movie would suddenly shift into apocalyptic gear and enter year 2000 paranoia. (The continuous change of tone also allows for a carousel of fantastic settings, from a U.S. laboratory to a Vatican palace, from an ancient Roman church to a holy place in Jerusalem).
We are introduced to our well-respected U.S. scientist, a cold factual atheist, who has
invented a system to archive all the features of a radio signal. Far from any dreams of glory,
he contents himself with his invention. He is testing it in his lab when he detects a radio
signal coming from a galaxy 1,000 years away. His machine reveals that the radio signal is
not a product of natural phenomena, it must have been manufactured by intelligent beings.
The excitement spreads and government agencies fund research, but nobody seems capable of making sense of its code. One problem is that the signal is not very clear. The scientist realizes an odd property of the signal: it is polarized so that its intensity varies depending on the location, as if it was meant for a specific place. At that location it should be very clear. The scientist travels with government agents to Africa, Tierra del Fuego, Indonesia, Iraq. Finally, Rome: it's Rome.
Scientists converge on Rome to study the signal. In Rome the scientist befriends a theologian of the Vatican and they have an interesting conversation on God and Science. Through him, the scientist meets an attractive Italian historian who works for the Vatican. The two flirt and he is fascinated by the fact that she has access to the Vatican archives, where thousands of ancient documents have been kept hidden for centuries. She suggests that the message may not be from an advanced civilization but from a primitive one, maybe scientists cannot decipher the message because it's coded according to a very primitive system of communication.
It turns out to be the right intuition: the message is not binary, it is patterns, like hieroglyphs, each pattern representing a word. The scientist tells the historian the news over the phone (or over a dinner). He wonders what kind of language it may be and she, suggests that, if it was sent 1,000 years ago to Rome, it may be written in Latin... and Latin it proves to be.
Once deciphered, it turns out to be a message in the purest Christian tradition, a touching message that, broadcast around the world, moves to tears millions of people. It is an encouragement to withstand persecution and even death in order to uphold the most important Christian value: love. It instructs the recipient to spread the faith, targeting the ruling class, in the hope that the ruler will convert the people. What is puzzling is that it seems to address a time and a society which are not the ones of the Middle Ages.
The names of the sender and of the recipient cannot be deciphered because they are just patterns.
The Church is asked to cooperate because they have the greatest experts in Latin and of course they can judge a Christian message better than anyone else. The theologian is in charge. His linguists find that it is a much older form of Latin, one that was used at the time of the Roman Empire.
By analyzing the signal with his invention, the scientist realizes that the signal was not sent by that galaxy, it was simply broadcast to Earth by it. Studying the spectrum, he figures out the trajectory before it was deflected: it came from the Earth! That means that it was sent 2,000 years ago from a place on the Earth. It took 1,000 years to travel to the galaxy and 1,000 more years to travel back to Earth. The news is shocking: somebody was capable of transmitting radio signals 2,000 years ago, and was doing so in Latin. In view of the new findings, the theologian appoints the historian in charge of studying the origins of the document.
In the meantime, scientists have pinpointed the exact location in Rome where the signal reaches maximum intensity, the Basilica of San Clemente. Clemente, a Roman slave, became one of the earliest popes and the basilica was built on top of the quarters where he used to live as a slave (true story). Archeologists start digging under the Basilica. The astronomers pinpoint the source of the radio signal in Jerusalem. The historian and the scientist travel to Jerusalem.
Back in Rome, the archeologists uncover a chapel under the basilica. The graffitis on the walls unmistakably point to Saint Peter (Jesus' apostle and the Church's first pope) having lived there. The Pope in person comes to visit the site. Ancient manuscripts are found and they are all written by the same hand. Pilgrims start flocking to the basilica.
By studying the contents of the letter and the features of the radio signal, the scientist and the historian pinpoint the location in Jerusalem where signals were transmitted from: it's the site reputed to be Jesus' tomb.
In Rome, the archeologists recover a manuscript which is the handwritten version of the radio signal. They can finally read both names: the addressee is Peter, the sender is "Your God". Upon hearing the news, the scientist and the historian reach the same conclusion: somebody was transmitting messages from Jesus' tomb, and somebody was receiving them in Saint Peter's home, then transcribing them for diffusion among the faithful. But no equipment has been found anywhere. The scientist and the historian return to Rome.
While chatting with the scientist, the theologian implies that the Church has known for centuries that this message was to arrive. It was one of the well-kept secrets of the archives. And there are many more. The scientist asks: "why now?" The theologian replies: "That will become one more of our well-kept secrets". Pilgrims from all over the world flock to the basilica and to Jesus' tomb.
In the meantime, astronomers have provided evidence that the galaxy has a black hole. The scientist explains to the theologian that what happens inside a black hole is still a mystery and it defies Science. This specific black hole, about 1,000 years ago, and for just a few seconds, reversed its course, and it started bouncing back all incoming radiations. This way it behaved accidentally like a broadcasting station. The signal was resent to the original destination intact: it had just been frozen in time for 2,000 years. The black hole worked like a broadcasting station only for a few seconds, and exactly those seconds when that message was arriving to this distant galaxy.
The theologian does not believe in a coincidence. He sees the hand of God. The scientist objects that God wouldn't need to use such a complicated system to send a message to the world. The theologian argues that all the spiritual events of the world, from the conception of Jesus to the miracles of a saint, always "use" our real world and its physical laws in order to occur. That's the will of God. No surprise, then, if this time He used a black hole.
Countless TV shows analyze the findings. At a show, a French pundit (colleague and rival of the American scientist) argues that Jesus could have been a scientific genius of his times who fooled everybody. His followers simply learned his tricks and possibly even advanced his theories. But our American scientist, instead, declines to comment until the equipment is found: "There is no evidence yet that he was a scientific genius, there is plenty of evidence that he could broadcast a message across the sea, actually across the universe". The historian speculates that Jesus' tomb became a center of early Christianity from where instructions were issued to the rest of the church. Of course, the equipment must be found to confirm this thesis. Replying to a question by the moderator, the scientist admits that such an equipment could not have been built in those times. The theologian is the only one who does not need to see the equipment: he believes that God used Jesus' body all the time, whether alive or dead, to send his message to the peoples of the Earth.
In a private conversation the theologian challenges the scientist's rationality, but the scientist is determined to follow logic, not faith, and is convinced that Science can explain everything, that Science shall prevail.
The scientist and the historian become lovers. During a discussion, the scientist learns that Jesus' death and resurrection cannot be proven. He learns that Jesus had a twin brother who wrote a gospel, recovered in 1947 at Nag Hammadi, one of the "gnostic gospels" (true story).
Maybe his followers fabricated his resurrection using his twin brother. Or maybe he himself used his twin brother to escape death and persecution and continue his struggle.
On yet another TV show, the scientist reviews all the evidence and then logically concludes that those messages were sent by Jesus in person, and they were sent telepathically. Jesus may have had a number of unusual powers, which account for his miracles, and one of them was telepathy. Peter would simply receive them as dreams and transcribe them for everybody to read them. The theologian comments: "We have always said the same thing, except that we use a different vocabulary".
The American scientist falls in disgrace with the scientific community. The French pundit even points out that the whole thing was triggered by what his machine recorded, and only he, the American scientist, really knows how that machine works and what it actually does. "We still have no independent confirmation that this signal is really what he told us it is."
Last scene. The scientist and the historian are staring at the stars from a verandah. Zoom on the far galaxy. The galaxy spits out spurts of light in all directions and each spurt is a voice in a different language: Arabic, Chinese, Hindu, ...
The viewer is left to wonder which of the hypotheses is the truth: was the message really broadcast by Jesus? Was Jesus a scientific genius? Was his message timed to reach us right now? May it all be a forgery? The scientist has actually little to do with the search for meaning. He is simply the deus ex machina, because he invents the machine that detects the message. Later, his role is simply to provide rational interpretations of events. The theologian acts as his alter-ego, emphasizing the spiritual, mystic and irrational that could creep into the other's scientific interpretations. The historian is an ambiguous bridge between the two world and the two characters. She has access to some of the theologian's secrets and she always seems to know ahead of time what is going to happen.
Mauro Cerisola writes: