2.5 out of 5 stars

Bronx provocateur Abel Ferrara’s penchant for grimy, sleazy, yet spiritually redemptive darkness, in films such as Bad Lieutenant (1992) and King of New York (1990), seems to have largely faded away for more contemplative permutations in recent years; a transition that’s been backdropped by his move from New York to Rome and his religious migration from Catholicism to Buddhism. Whether it be through the self-lacerating-yet-reflective Tommaso (2019) or the incomprehensibly psychedelic Siberia (2020), Ferrara appears to be delving more into the world of abstraction than he’s ever done before, turning his lens moreso on the ugliness that lies inward rather than outward. 

His latest film in this trend—the indecipherable, disorientating Zeros and Ones—serves as his attempt at juxtaposing that internal mess with  (what else? )  a murky representation of the COVID-19 era, and its air of threatening mystery. Indeed, that overlap is directly alluded to by a line found towards its end  ( ”To understand what’s outside of you, you must use what’s in you”),  yet Zeros and Ones is also a film that has so little interest in constructing an understandable story that its internalised air of existential, digitised societal dread can only carry it so far.

Ferrara’s film doesn’t open on an actual scene from the movie, but rather on a video clip from star Ethan Hawke, explaining out-of-character his love for Ferrara’s films and his reasons for joining this particular production—among them being that its “script speaks to this moment… not in a didactic way.” It’s effectively an elevator pitch that has him explaining some of its narrative elements and fundamental stakes… and it’s also the most straightforward this film is going to be for a long time. Soon after Hawke’s speech finishes, Zeros and Ones’ actual narrative starts up, with a US soldier named J.J (Hawke) stepping out of a train into none other than Ferrara’s home city of Rome, Italy. The first impression of this film’s Eternal City is a murky one, however; its streets are disemboweled by what is all but implied to be the COVID-19 pandemic, given the presence of masks, forehead thermometers, and the familiar malaise lingering behind its emptied pathways and buildings.

The details of what exactly J.J is here for aren’t clear at first, and what we are given is incredibly sparse. We know for sure that J.J’s twin brother, Justin (Hawke again), is a purported anarcho-communist revolutionary under threat by nondescript authorities. His only major appearance is in a video tape J.J watches not long after his arrival to Rome—that of Justin being tortured by soldiers while he goes on a fiery, Woody Guthrie-referencing, anti-imperialist tirade about self-immolation, quoting constitutional and canonical American texts while accusing his assailants of “hating trees.” There’s also talk of an impending disaster looming on the horizon— seemingly a bombing attack on the Vatican itself — a major conflict that appears to have been the soldiers’ aim for torturing Justin, and also is constantly referenced in the numerous encounters J.J has all throughout Rome.

Catastrophe always feels like it’s lingering just around the corners of the streets J.J navigates, armed with solely a gun and a Sony DSLR camera, and Sean Price Williams’s grainy low-exposure cinematography — doused in shadows and awash with dim, cheap-looking hues of white light —merged with Joe Della’s distorted drone guitars and drum-laden score are what provide the ambience for this hollowed-out, dystopian rendition of Italy. Combine that with the numerous angles of gritty night-vision footage the film incorporates, not to mention the videotapes and Skype calls J.J views along his mission, and what the audience is left with aesthetically is a blurry, digitised rendition of a pandemic-ravaged world so full of the unknown, and so devoid of any concrete, confidently presented information. It’s a confusing, disorienting place, made even more so by the fact that each of us have no choice but to face it alone, given the myriad of isolating circumstances in which we live.

However, that effect’s impact seems limited to the film’s technical and aesthetic decisions, as the narrative choices Zeros and Ones makes in service of that confusion and dread only serve to muddle what it wants to make of itself. Multiple elements in Ferrara’s COVID world are established throughout — talk of the Vatican juxtaposes with J.J’s visits to a nearby mosque, sex workers are introduced to J.J over video-calls, we’re given a scene where soldiers barge into a boxing gym and viciously waterboard someone there, and Russian secret services prove to be the most immediate threat to J.J’s survival. If the film’s nearly 80-minute long runtime is any indication, though, nearly all of them end up tragically undercooked, with little about the film’s aesthetic decisions being ultimately able to endear us to such an abstract storytelling approach. We know little about any of the characters’ loyalties or intentions, which could very well have been the thematic crux of the narrative if J.J himself—in essence the audience surrogate—also wasn’t shrouded in such obscurity in almost every conceivable facet.

Would further context have ultimately resuscitated such a sparsely-threaded-together narrative? There’s a good chance it might have, as there’s ostensibly some amount of substance to piece together amidst all the noise. For one, if Hawke’s second video message to the audience — bookending the film by having it placed smack at the end — that emphasises a key dichotomy in existentialism is any indication, there could have been substantial room to elaborate on J.J and Justin’s relationship: two brothers who amount to two sides of the same coin, one reluctantly upholding imperialist structures and one hell-bent on bombing them to the ground. But there’s only so much of what we actually end up seeing of Justin in Zeros and Ones, and only so much that gets explained about the liberating effects of his impassioned resistance on J.J himself until more towards the film’s ending.

Speaking of which —Hawke’s dedication to his double role is readily apparent in how differentiable the two characters are, and as a result, it’s one of the film’s most apparent bright spots. The veteran thespian seems to effortlessly contrast the steely-gazed J.J with the uninhibited, bold-faced Justin, and his gravelly, world-worn voice and mannerisms seem uniquely suited for both characters who operate on completely different emotional wavelengths. Worth noting, too, is that Zeros and Ones certainly isn’t an anti-didactic film, either, as Hawke claims in his first video message—Hawke’s often heard helming sporadic bouts of voice-over narration as J.J here and there, reducing key religious figures like Jesus to being merely parts of a war, and other such heavy-handed, poetic musings about faith and revolution. But it gradually becomes obvious that in a more grounded, thought-through story, such a fascinating double role and narration would have had further emotional resonance and a more coherent place in the film’s internal logic—as it stands, Hawke’s prolific skills are left with very little foundation to stand on.

For anyone who’s finished Zeros and Ones and come out the other side with a near-nonexistent grip on the film’s threadbare plot, fret not—Hawke didn’t understand it at first, either! That’s something he freely confesses in his aforementioned second video addressed to the audience: that he found the script (a “non-accurate term” for what he actually received, he says) beautiful but purely incomprehensible: before, of course, he launches into an extended speech about the beauty and spontaneity of birth. To think that a film with such an absolutist, binary title—which also alludes to J.J’s pervasive usage of screens throughout the story—would ultimately trudge through grey areas may be a touch of irony, but it’s clear that Ferrara at least intended for Zeros and Ones to operate in murky territory for its claustrophobic, gradually constricting narrative of impending societal collapse and robustly constructed atmosphere.

The question then becomes, however, just how much making the narrative deliberately vague was actually necessary, and how much providing even the slightest iota of context would have helped the overall experience. With that in mind, it becomes less clear if Hawke’s final remarks are him actually justifying and praising the film’s abstract indulgence, or him being somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek apologist for Ferrara’s vaguer methods. (Perhaps even both!) At the very least, however, Zeros and Ones appears to be a film where its ideas, even as they’re served in disparate fragments, can be decently inferred: its relatively hopeful finale is an indication that Ferrara subscribes to a sincerely held, earnest belief in radical change as much as anyone else in these frustrating and suspenseful times, a kind of plea for a new system to rise from the newly burnt ashes of the old. It’s just somewhat frustrating that the means through which Ferrara’s trying to say this are left obscured by smoke before he finally makes his point clear.


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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Abel Ferrara.
starring: Ethan Hawke, Christina Chiriac & Valerio Mastandrea.