Zeros and Ones
Written and directed by Abel Ferrara
Starring Ethan Hawke, Vakerio Mastandrea, Cristina Chiriac
“Jesus was just another soldier. Another war casualty… but on whose side?”
There is nothing like the cinema and the world of Abel Ferrara. His films and their characters exist in the underbelly of every society. Ferrara likes to show the world and its people as raw and real and almost constantly walking hand in hand with their impending downfall.
For many of his characters, the worlds in which they exist are the very essence of Jim Morrison’s lyric, “No one here gets out alive.” Humanity has doomed themselves and Ferrara is here to capture it on film.
Every new work from this unique filmmaker is an artfully dark examination of the times it reflects. The director’s latest is no exception.
“Zeros and Ones” was filmed in Italy during the lockdown and is a parallel of the COVID-19 pandemic itself.
Ethan Hawke stars a JJ, an American military operative stationed in Rome, Italy during full pandemic lockdown. JJ wanders the streets in his mask, has strange computer exchanges with another operative, meets a woman with a child of whom he may or may not be the father of, and records some video for something we are not aware of. He is told only, “Shoot it so they believe it,” by a superior officer. The rest is for us to decipher.
Hawke also plays JJ’s twin brother, Justin, who is being held captive (or he may be dead) after his involvement in a plot to blow up The Vatican.
The audience is never clear about JJ’s mission or motivations beyond finding out what happened to his brother. The character seems to be a player in some sort of international espionage plot, as he encounters Russian mobsters and Chinese agents. Some are out to help him (we think) while some are furiously trying to kill him and prevent him from discovering… what?
Ferrara never fully lets his viewers in this on the intricacies of JJ’s mission. The director has set the mood for an ambient thriller that has no plot or closure.
Cinematographer Sean Price Williams shoots on video and the imagery is purposely opaque, as the filmmaker wants us all to be “in the dark” regarding what is transpiring, or perhaps he is commenting that we are marching toward a world of darkness and isolation.
Ferrara (always an artist who seeks to provoke and discombobulate) is in Art Film mode here. He takes a subject that is surface level familiar and makes it as abstract a narrative as one could imagine, forgiving that “narrative” is not his intent.
As Hawke’s character wanders through the desolate streets of Rome, his voiceover warns of conspiracy and religious hypocrisy while giving a very real call to arms for the mind. JJ is the ghost of a different time gliding through a city in despair.
His brother is seen in a kind of “hostage video”, and Hawke’s portrayal of Justin is without restrictions. As the brother, the actor lets out his demons in a bizarre diatribe about humanity. It is an unhinged moment of acting brilliance; the kind of performance one can only find in the films of Abel Ferrara.
Nihilistic is an accurate description of this film. Where Ferrara has found a soulful poetry in some of his films (“4:44 Last Day on Earth”, “Tommaso”, and “Siberia” are examples of a small light of hope in the director’s dark vision), he does not set out to compel or move us this time. He very much wants our minds to scramble, and his filmmaking is as abstractly balls-out as it ever has been.
The film is bookended by two short videos from Ethan Hawke. In the first, the actor speaks of how excited and honored he is to work with Ferrara. His exuberance is obvious. Truly a strange way to begin any film.
The second comes after the close of the film. Hawke is back, telling us that we all just saw the film for the first time together and revealing that the opening preface was indeed a pitch to potential investors. As he tries to give his thoughts on the finished product, his mind wanders and searches. He cannot find the words, failing to give a clear answer to the true meaning of Ferrara’s work.
I feel it is the filmmaker’s intention (Ferrara also wrote the screenplay) for each viewer to get something different out of his latest work.
For me, the two brothers are the duality of man. A man of stoicism who follows orders for (perhaps) a greater good, versus a man who will go to extremes to force humanity to take notice of its own failings and hypocrisies. The pandemic is used to show man’s destruction of his morality through ignorance, blind faith in leadership, and the finality of such sins. When it comes down to it, who bloody knows if I am on target or way off.
“Zeroes and Ones” is certainly a head-scratcher, but a philosophical one. Abel Ferrara’s films are always deeper than one might think. The fact of whether we truly like the film is almost irrelevant in the scheme of the director’s vision here.
I have watched this strange head trip two times and am not sure I like it, but I am not sure I don’t.
Somewhere, Abel Ferrara is laughing his ass off.
R, 85 Minutes, Maze Pictures, Lionsgate