Star Ethan Hawke introduces, out of character, Abel Ferrara’s latest film with a little reminder of “what we’ve been living through” the last couple of years, and a professed “I can’t wait to see” what Ferrara’s come up with this time.
That tells us several things about the movie, “Zeroes and Ones,” that follows. Its star either didn’t get to see the finished film, or he did and he’s not going too far out on a limb endorsing it, either from doubts about it or confusion as to its point.
And Ferrara himself felt the need to “cheat” with this sort of prologue, telling a viewer how to best appreciate his minimal-but-not-quite-minimalist exercise in movie making under limited lockdown in Italia. He’s asking us to grade-it-on-the-curve.
That’s sort of like sticking a cute Sigourney Weaver cameo in the closing credits of your slick but empty “Ghostbusters” money grab, hoping to at least spin your way into a better movie.
Ferrara needs this “how to watch it” help because the paranoid tale he sets out to tell is neither wholly coherent nor particularly compelling.
Hawke — as he’s explained in that prologue — plays two roles, that of a US soldier in Rome and that of the soldier’s brother, a terrorist or “revolutionary” imprisoned somewhere undergoing “enhanced interrogation (water boarding, drugging) to try and prevent an attack from his “group.”
There’s a lot of wordless hiking, in COVID mask, fatigues and combat gear, through the empty streets, along empty rooftops and down darkened passageways. Soldiers get their temperature checked, embark and debark from trucks, sweep across empty parks — searching.
As a woman (Valeria Correale) soldier Hawke (distinguished by having his hair tied back) knows asks, “Have you figured out what you’re doing in my country?”
The soldier gives the filmmaker’s answer to her. “Working on it.”
We glimpse, either live-streamed and recorded, Islamic terror threats that “call on you (the West, the US, etc.) to be people of principle.” Or else.
An interrogator (Valerio Mastandrea) asks a two word question of the unkempt, raving, hair-down prisoner Hawke.
“Your enemy won’t be gone when you kill me,” the terrorist growls between water-boardings.
Drugging him turns his aversion to answering questions into free form Woody Guthrie quoting, rants about that ultimate act of protest, the one that was the beginning of the end in Vietnam, and the beginning of the Arab Spring.
“How come no one is setting themselves on fire?” He’d do it, he screams. With a pandemic, the rise of fascist nationalism and America descending into Trumpism, it’s time, he figures.
The soldier and others have an idea of the target — Rome itself, Vatican City specifically, “the capital” of Christendom, “Death to the infidels,” another shot in a “3000 year war,” our soldier opines. “Thousand year war,” a Muslim prisoner later corrects him.
Ferrara wants brownie points for faking all this under extreme filmmaking conditions, as does ever other filmmaker who told a “pandemic story” during the pandemic.
But the obscurant strain of it all shows. Most of what’s here would be filler in a better film, or bullet point scenes in a story more wholly-shaped and worked out.
Ferrara fans will recognize hints of his recurring themes, and the increased concerns of his dotage (he moved to Italy/got out of America for a variety of reasons).
And you’ll spot his wife, Cristina Chiriac, laughing in a couple of scenes, and their little girl Anna with the mysterious woman in another.
I think that’s a Ferrara cameo as a masked, cowled monk.
But none of that, or the not-special-at-all effects and self-consciously “arty” touches. really matter. If it weren’t for that “think of what I did, and under what conditions” prologue, none of us would give this a second thought. Including the picture’s star.
Rating: R for language, some violence, bloody images, sexual material and drug content
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Valerio Mastandrea, Valeria Correale, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara
Credits: Scripted and directed by Abel Ferrara. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:26