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LOCARNO 2021 Competition

Review: Zeros and Ones


- Co-produced by Germany, the UK and the USA, Abel Ferrara’s latest work turns out to be a chaotic and difficult film to decipher, held aloft by an omnipresent score

Review: Zeros and Ones
Ethan Hawke in Zeros and Ones

Captained by an ethereal and unflappable Ethan Hawke, stepping into the shoes of an American soldier called JJ whose mission remains largely unknown, Zeros and Ones [+see also:
film profile
plays on an endless form of suspense which sadly becomes a little taxing. Introduced by Hawke himself, who explained Abel Ferrara’s motivations for making the film – to react to the health crisis, but also as a result of the very same reasons which drive an actor to choose the projects best suited to him - Zeros and Ones hurls us into a dystopic world inhabited by lugubrious and unscrupulous characters as of its opening shots.

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Summarising the story told by Abel Ferrara in his latest cinematic effort, which was presented in a world premiere within the Locarno Film Festival’s International Competition, is no easy thing, because the film introduces us to an almost infinite number of characters, whose only common link is JJ, an American solider on a mission in Rome, which is being attacked by apocalyptic forms.

The film revolves around JJ’s nervous, paranoid wanderings, which might be aimed at saving the eternal city from destruction, freeing his anarchic brother (as the protagonist describes him) or saving the latter’s wife and daughter from an unknown, imminent danger. JJ’s real motivations remain unclear in a coming and going of increasingly sinister encounters, involving religious fanatics (both Catholics and Muslims), rugged, oriental drugs traffickers and voluptuous mafiosi women hailing from the East. The film’s vagueness reaches a climax when Hawke, aka JJ, is forced at gunpoint to impregnate one of the two mysterious girls while being filmed using the camera JJ wields compulsively throughout the film, all to the tune of an unlikely song by Loreena McKennitt.

Whilst, at a certain point, we realise that the chaos is caused by the destruction of the Vatican (which is blown away by a bomb), there’s nothing to help us understand who JJ is looking for and why everyone is so angry at him. Despite the surreal atmosphere dominating Ferrara’s political thriller, it still feels familiar to us thanks to the inclusion of habits which are now part and parcel of all our lives: the wearing of a mask and the nigh-on automatic reflex of washing our hands. Why the director chose to combine a health crisis with a political thriller might be a question worth asking, given that, ultimately, the theme of the pandemic is only explored at surface level and remains a peripheral and sadly trivial thing. Is Zeros and Ones the director’s attempt to lend form to the fears and paranoias which have inhabited him over the past year and a half? Nothing is certain, but this might be one of the keys to understanding this film, which is decidedly difficult to decipher and whose only logical narrative seems to come from the music whose presence is constant from beginning to end. It’s a shame, though, that a director like Ferrara, who has always proved himself to be a visionary and cult filmmaker, didn’t see fit to include any “female” characters who transcend basic stereotypes; instead, mothers, prostitutes, femmes fatales and seducers abound. From this point of view, at least, the film could definitely have done better.

Zeros and Ones is produced by Maze Pictures (Germany), Hammerstone Studios (USA), Rimsky Productions (UK) and Macaia Film (Italy) in co-production with Almost Never Films (USA). World sales are in the hands of Blue Box International.

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(Translated from Italian)

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