Zeros and Ones (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A murky and rambling work by Abel Ferrara

I admire how Abel Ferrara have steadily continued his interesting filmmaking career during last 20 years. While he may have passed his prime period after a string of fascinating works he made in US during the 1990s, this distinctive American filmmaker has quietly kept working during next two decades, and his recent films “Pasolini” (2014) and “Tommaso” (2019) showed us that he is still a master filmmaker who deserves more attention.

Mainly because I was amused and entertained by “Tommaso” more than expected, I had some expectation on Ferrara’s very next film “Siberia” (2020), but it turned out to be rather hollow to my disappointment, and now here comes another disappointment via “Zeros and Ones”, which was released in US several months ago. While I could sense to some degree that the movie is the reflection of whatever Ferrara is feeling and thinking during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I frequently felt lost, confused, and frustrated due to its murky visual and barebone narrative, and I was eventually left with empty hands as already dreading over what I could possibly write in this review.

What is presented at the beginning and end of the movie is much more interesting than the movie itself. Ethan Hawke, who plays the solider hero of the movie, talks directly to the audiences, and I actually enjoyed his sincere and enthusiastic introduction for the film. As one of the most interesting (and intelligent) actors working in Hollywood, Hawke has seldom hesitated to accept challenging roles, and we can understand how eager he has been to collaborate with Ferrara as admiring Ferrara’s fruitful recent collaborations with Willem Dafoe, who incidentally gave one of his more interesting performances in “Tommaso”.

I must confess that I had some expectation thanks to Hawke’s introduction clip, but, sadly, my expectation was soon dissipated during next 20 minutes as trying to understand what exactly is going on around Hawke’s character. As far as I can remember from the movie, his soldier character comes to Rome during one night for some secret mission, but the movie is adamantly vague about the details of this secret mission, and I have to admit that I came to understand its plot a bit only after getting some information from Rotten Tomatoes.

Anyway, Hawke’s character goes around here and there in the city, and we see more of how the city has been struggling with the ongoing pandemic, though the movie never specifies whether it is due to COVID-19 or some other highly contagious virus. Almost everyone in the film wears mask as ordered, and some of the characters appearing in the film sometimes say that their test results are negative.

Anyway, Hawke’s character is supposed to prevent a serious terror attack may occur sooner or later in Rome, and it looks like his imprisoned brother, who is also played by Hawke, holds a crucial piece of information for that, but, as your typical rebellious radical, his brother is quite uncooperative to say the least. At point, we see a video clip of his brother being interrogated by several soldiers, and we have to endure a sprawling speech which is incidentally ended with a certain classic song from Woody Guthrie.

After that, Hawke’s character keeps navigating the dark night streets and alleys of Rome, and the movie gives us a series of baffling moments which simply come and go. For example, I have no idea on the purpose of a seedy scene involved with drug and sex, and the same thing can be said about the subsequent sex scene between Hawke’s character and one of the female supporting characters in the film. Furthermore, the movie resorts to lots of rambling from time to time, and this does not add up to anything substantial while merely feeling like random excerpts from Ferrara’s personal notebook.

To make matters worse, the visual quality of the movie is so persistently murky that I often struggled to focus on whatever was shown on the screen. I guess Ferrara and his cinematographer Sean Price Williams attempt to make some point on how murky and confusing our world has been at present due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but their result is simply distracting and suffocating to say the least, and I was relieved only after the movie was finally brightened up a bit around its ending.

After consoled a little by that little bright part, I felt a bit better when Hawke appeared again at the end of the film, and I chuckled a little as he honestly admitted that even he does not know what exactly the movie is about. It looks like he had a fairly good time as working with Ferrara, but his performance here in this film is not exactly one of the highlights in his long and illustrious acting career, and now I am wondering whether he just simply followed whatever Ferrara ordered to him on the set.

In conclusion, “Zeros and Ones” is a misfire which feels more baffling and frustrating as I reflect more on its numerous elusive moments, and I would rather recommend you to watch “Tommaso” (2019) instead. Although I merely admire that film when I watched in October 2020, I still remember well its several interesting moments, and I am willing to revisit it sooner or later. In case of “Zeroes and Ones”, I have no interest at all in re-evaluating this vapid mess for now, and I am already ready to move onto whatever Ferrara will give us next.

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