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Zeros and Ones 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Director: Abel Ferrara
Writer: Abel Ferrara
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Valerio Mastandrea, Babak Karimi
Lockdown affected us all in peculiar ways, and given that veteran provocateur Abel Ferrara was pretty damn peculiar to begin with, it’s no surprise that “Zeros And Ones” — a fiction that makes use of the non-fictional pandemic in ways both fascinating and frustrating — should turn out to be such a conundrum, equal parts confounding and intriguing, repellent and rewarding. Ostensibly a more genre-based exercise than Ferrara’s last few films – there are explosions, soldiers, guns, spycams, and foot chases through the livid Rome night — in fact, this new dystopian drama may be more difficult and inaccessible than his 2020 Berlin mindfuck “Siberia,” which at least had a fish quoting Nietzsche to signal that perhaps it wasn’t all meant entirely seriously.
“Zeros and Ones,” by contrast, is profoundly serious — possibly to the detriment of understanding its sludgier undercurrents; a little bit of leavening humor might have made it all less impenetrable. And it contains no piscine philosophies to help us through. As near as Ferrara gets to hand-holding (and has there ever been a filmmaker less in thrall to the very notion of exposition?) is to bookend with movie “proper” with apparently off-the-cuff footage of star Ethan Hawke, out of character, talking as though he’s introducing the film to a festival audience. Hawke praises Ferrara as a filmmaker of vision — in particular, his recent collaborations with Willem Dafoe— and later returns to the story of first reading the script with the confession that he accepted the roles (he also plays his character’s brother) in this “beautiful” film without fully, or even mostly, understanding it. These segments seem temporary, tacked on as a little fillip for the premiere audience, but will in fact appear on all versions; Hawke even makes a point of declaring that they are part of the movie at the end, a meta-flourish that is either infuriating or oddly comforting, betraying a welcome human instinct on the part of Ferrara to let the befuddled viewer a little off the hook. If the lead actor has no clue what’s going on here, except in the vaguest and most general of terms (it’s about life and death, apparently), perhaps it’s ok that we don’t either.
If what it is about is difficult to pin down, what actually happens is only slightly less so. The film appears to be set in a near-future during which pandemic-style measures are in place, but the nature of the contagion they are combatting is unclear. Perhaps it is simply a coronavirus, but perhaps it is the fallout of whatever Holy War also seems to be in progress. Hawke plays a soldier called, per the press notes, JJ. We are never are entirely sure if he’s a crusader or a heretic, and the casting of Hawke — so recently having played a conflicted priest in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed“— perhaps helps to preserve that ambivalence. JJ is part of some elite unit that gives him license to act more or less in isolation through this long dark Roman night of the soul. Meanwhile, his brother, a dissident revolutionary variously dubbed an anarchist and a communist, is incarcerated and being tortured presumably for information about the terror attacks that will blow up half of Rome’s most sacrosanct buildings. These effects Ferrara achieves via cheap but strangely handsome montage, in which he simply cuts from a shot of St Peter’s Basilica to a massive, screen-filling explosion and lets your brain and Mr. Kuleshov do the rest. “Independence Day” it ain’t.
Often masked and constantly disinfecting his hands, JJ voyages through buildings, churches, mosques, apartments. The streets are patrolled by the military but otherwise largely unpeopled, and so each encounter seems a separate discrete incident. JJ visits the mother of his brother’s child, members of an Asian drug dealing/prostitution gang, a homeless informant, a handler, an imam, a priest, and a couple of Russian businessmen/mobsters/diplomats (it’s all the same thing here) who are in the company of two female Russian operatives, one who laughs all the time, and one who never smiles. By some of these, he is helped, by others hindered, pursued, kidnapped, and, in one particularly bizarre instance that again has some indefinable messianic connotations, forced to have sex at gunpoint. But whether JJ is on the run or is himself the pursuer, he is always filming— a gun and a camera being his constant companions, often both, unsubtly, pointed at the same subject. And so, even more than the jumble of confused and despairing ideas about religion, conflict, militarism, loyalty and betrayal, perhaps the film’s most coherent theme is the notion of images— and the stuff of them, the pixels, their zeroes and ones— as modern currency. Therefore, this also suggests that image-makers are our modern powerbrokers, especially in a dissociated, atomized, screen-plagued environment, such as the lockdown situation in which “Zeros and Ones” was conceived.
This, in turn, makes sense of the film’s most impressive element: the strange, grimy visual intoxication that comes from DP Sean Price Williams pushing low-light digital photography to the limits of intelligibility and sometimes beyond. At times the digital grain is so pronounced that light pooling in the gloom looks like it’s full of cascading raindrops, while dark patches can seem almost livid with particulate, microbial movement: viral, unhealthy, teeming. Coupled with Joe Delia‘s score —omnipresent, brooding bassline riffs rife with reverb and distortion —Ferrara’s vision of this paranoiac purgatory is told in such zoomed-in, close up images that at times the pixellated, bitmapped spaces between the grains take up more space than the actual visual information. It yields hyper-degraded pictures so abstract and porous that however much meaning you try to pour into them, more leaks out through the gaps. “The world is the hiding place for God” is a phrase that swims up out of the murk at one point, and in “Zeros and Ones,” God has a whole lot of dark corners and empty, crackly spaces in which to go to ground, and so to leave us to stumble around haplessly in His absence.
The intellectual take on the pandemic here is oblique. Still, the mood feels extraordinarily direct, like speaking on a telephone to a version of yourself from maybe half a year ago before there were vaccines and hope when the nights were long. We were all on our second or third lockdown, and dawn, both literal and metaphorical, seemed so far away. And so, if there is one moment of glibness in this otherwise entirely somber and tortuously serious endeavor, it may be when you get a glimpse of the world waking up the day after. Given the heft and the gravity of Ferrara’s powerfully pessimistic, grim dystopia to that point, the glimpses of children playing among fallen leaves, women buying flowers from street sellers and maskless couples flirting in coffee shops play at best as fantastical wishful thinking about a possible future normality, and at worst as a kind of taunting reminder of the world we had before. It feels deeply inorganic to Ferrara’s otherwise almost malevolently un-hopeful worldview that so much grime and gloom should end in daylight; “Zeros and Ones” far more powerfully makes the case that any dawn is far more likely a false one, maybe just the light of Molotov cocktails or a basilica burning on the horizon.