‘Zeros and Ones’: Film Review

Ethan Hawke plays a rogue American soldier caught up in murky terrorist espionage plots in veteran cult director Abel Ferrara’s pandemic lockdown thriller, which world premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

Decades of shooting indie movies under guerilla conditions and heavy budget restrictions served art-house pulp auteur Abel Ferrara well when the COVID-19 lockdown hit. Seizing on the dramatic potential of pandemic paranoia and spookily empty city streets, the veteran New York sleaze maestro made Zeros and Ones in his adopted home city of Rome under strict viral curfew rules, with cast and crew wearing masks and sharing social bubbles. Face coverings, antiseptic hand wash and Zoom calls all feature onscreen.

Ferrara’s Roger Corman-like resourcefulness should be saluted, even if Zeros and Ones is one of the 70-year-old veteran’s minor late works, and shares some recurring flaws with much of his recent output. The scrambled narrative, listless pace, clumsy stabs at profundity and severe lack of humor will limit the film’s appeal to existing converts and cult movie connoisseurs following its world premiere in competition at the Locarno Film Festival this week. Essentially the Jean-Luc Godard of sleazy grunge-noir, Ferrara is now too fully immersed in his own signature brand of impenetrable self-indulgence to ever claw back the widespread critical goodwill and modest commercial traction he once enjoyed.

Zeros and Ones

The Bottom Line

Unlikely to go viral.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Phil Neilson, Valerio Mastandrea, Dounia Sichov, Korlan Madi, Mahmut Sifa Erkaya, Anna Ferrara
Director, screenwriter: Abel Ferrara

Rated R,
1 hour 25 minutes

Behind its cosmetic nods to the current pandemic, Zeros and Ones is rooted in fairly conventional conspiracy thriller tropes. Based on one of Ferrara’s older script ideas about the post 9/11 landscape and the so-called “war on terror,” it stars a gaunt, bearded Ethan Hawke as JJ, a terse military anti-hero who arrives in locked-down late-night Rome to carry out a murky undercover mission. With the eternal city recovering from some vaguely defined apocalyptic event, Ferrara and his cinematographer Sean Price Williams make smart use of minimal resources by shooting its grand squares and elegant colonnades using eerie drone shots and blue-tinted night-vision effects.

With armed soldiers and sinister foreign agents on his trail, JJ traverses Rome like a shadow, sharing furtive instructions with strangers in black cars, cryptic exchanges with mullahs in mosques and fraught intimacies with a young mother and child. He is anxious for news about his missing twin brother (also played by Hawke in brief flashback scenes), a messianic rebel leader who may be dead or in jail, depending on various unreliable witnesses. Nobody in Zeros and Ones has clear intentions, not least Ferrara himself.

JJ’s clandestine presence in Rome finally starts to add up when he becomes entangled in a massive terrorist attack on The Vatican, apparently a staged “false flag” operation and subsequent cover-up, all designed to provoke further conflict in the “3000-year-old war” between rival civilizations. With its historical echoes of the Berlin Reichstag fire, this explosive set-piece would make a promising plot pivot in a more orthodox mainstream thriller.

And yet, bizarrely, Ferrara presents the Vatican attack in such a cheap-looking and perfunctory manner, it barely registers on the narrative. He is far more interested in mandatory scenes of JJ taking drugs in neon-lit demi-monde orgies flanked by scantily dressed strippers, or being forced to have sex at gunpoint by a hot female Russian agent (played by Ferrara’s own wife, Cristina Chiriac, for any Freudian relationship counselors out there). Throw in multiple allusions to Jesus as a radical freedom fighter, the redemptive power of Catholicism, plus the obligatory handful of semi-naked female corpses, and you can pretty much tick the full Ferrara obsession checklist here.

Where Zeros and Ones does offer viewing pleasures, they are generally aesthetic rather than dramatic. The film’s experimental, lo-fi look and dreamy, impressionistic mood are certainly refreshingly off-grid. Even though the pacing is often sloppy, editor Leonardo Daniel Bianchi cuts between grimy street vistas, kinetic hand-held combat scenes and sublime close-ups of Renaissance paintings with a bold deftness of touch. As in Ferrara’s last dramatic feature, Siberia (2020), there are flashes of visual poetry and insightful psychodrama mixed in with the lesser, half-baked elements here.

Hawke’s boyish, old-school earnestness is an asset to Ferrara’s inchoate ramblings. His committed performance and gravel-voiced intensity work like life-saving surgery on a barely coherent script, lending authenticity even to unwittingly hilarious lines like “how come nobody is lighting themselves on fire any more?” and “don’t you even know that your strippers are Marxist?”

Ferrara concludes Zeros and Ones on a note of lyrical optimism, with home-movie footage of his own daughter Anna skipping through Rome as sun rises and life returns to the pandemic-stricken city. It’s a lovely image, though it arguably belongs in a different film than this, an obstinately cryptic lockdown experiment that never quite works out what it wants to be or say.

Full credits

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Maze Pictures, Rimsky Productions, Almost Never Films
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Phil Neilson, Valerio Mastandrea, Dounia Sichov, Korlan Madi, Mahmut Sifa Erkaya, Anna Ferrara.
Director, screenwriter: Abel Ferrara
Producers: Diana Phillips, Philipp Kreuzer
Cinematographer: Sean Price Williams
Editor: Leonardo Daniel Bianchi
Music: Joe Delia
Sales company: Blue Box International

Rated R, 1 hour 25 minutes