Friday, November 19, 2021

Abel Ferrara’s Zeroes and Ones

During the height of the global Covid-19 lockdowns, not everybody stayed inside. Crime skyrocketed in New York and other American big urban centers. However, in Rome, it is a shadowy terrorist network that is capitalizing on the empty city streets. At least, that is the cover story an American military commando has been told. For reasons that are never fully revealed, he believes his radical revolutionary twin brother has information that can avert their imminent attack in Abel Ferrara’s Zeroes and Ones, which releases today in theaters and on-demand.

That might sound like an explosive international thriller, but just so there are no misunderstandings, it should be understood from the outset that this is Abel Ferrara at his most Abel Ferrarish. In fact, he went back to his gritty street cinema roots, shooting
Z&O on the fly, defying civic curfews, in Covid-era Rome’s ghost town-looking back alleys. It is not exactly clear whether his story unfolds during the current CCP viral outbreak or the next one, but the vibe is certainly similar.

The hardnosed J.J. is convinced Justin holds key intel. It also seems like he wants to find his radical brother to make an eleventh-hour effort to mend their estranged relationship. Unfortunately, agents of the terrorist cabal (which clearly includes a lot of Russians) already know he is in Rome.

Honestly, the only straightforward segments of
Z&O are the wrap-arounds, wherein lead actor Ethan Hawke talks directly to the audience, discussing the process of collaborating with Ferrara. It doesn’t sound like he really knows what the film is about either, but he is still more or less okay with it.

He is also very good playing JJ—technically it is a dual role, but the respectable military twin gets the overwhelming lion-share of the screen-time. Right from the start, he looks sufficiently haggard and haunted to imply more than enough backstory. It is up to Hawke to carry this film and he does, if you can buy into Ferrara’s fractured perspective and hallucinatory aesthetics.

There is plenty of pretentious theological symbolism and frequent expressionistic representations of Ferrara’s tortured psyche, but at least we never see Harvey Keitel’s naked butt in this one. Nevertheless,
Z&O could fill a bingo card full of Ferrara hallmarks, including a weird sex scene featuring his wife, Christina Chiriac, holding a gun and a video camera on J.J. as he acquiesces to the Russians’ incredibly unsubtle honey trap. Apparently, sometimes a spy has to do what a spy has to do.

Along with Hawke, indie cinematographer extraordinaire Sean Price Williams does a lot to make Ferrara’s defiantly warped film watchable. He makes the locked-down nocturnal Rome look like ground zero for noir mystery, as if the characters from Carol Reed’s
The Third Man could step out of the shadows at any time. It looks great, but just what is going on? Who’s to say? Eventually, that relentless ambiguity loses its sense of intrigue.

Yet, for what its worth,
Zeroes and Ones is much more accessible than Siberia. In some ways, the stylish late-night thriller trappings are reassuring and Ferrara’s key collaborators, Hawke and Williams are clearly at the top of their crafts, but it is still extremely Ferrara. Recommended for the auteur’s devoted fans, Zeroes and Ones opens today (11/19) in New York at the Cinema Village.