Prolific cult filmmaker Abel Ferrara’s penchant for artistic abstraction lives on in Zeros and Ones, the director’s meandering effort in pandemic cinema. Ferrara shot on the freshly vacant streets of Rome—the city he’s lived in since the early 2000s—during lockdown, the city itself being the only formidable presence in the film aside from leading man Ethan Hawke. In fact, Hawke portrays three distinct roles in the film: That of a grizzled military man; a radical political prisoner; and the actor Ethan Hawke himself. Though Hawke’s multifaceted performance is masterful, an overall sluggish pace and half-baked intellectual rumination obscure any genuine insights being made by Ferrara on the current state of the world.
Though ostensibly an action film about preventing a bomb threat in a major city, very little action actually propels the plot of Zeros and Ones. Instead, Ferrara favors languid shots featuring grungy Roman streets and sparse dialogue, a decision that often leaves the viewer unsure of what is actually happening. The discernable narrative follows JJ (Hawke), a soldier who’s been tasked with preventing an imminent terrorist threat to the Vatican. While he’s in Rome, though, he is also hell-bent on finding his anarchist brother (also Hawke), a political prisoner who may or may not already be dead. While there’s an obvious race against time and plenty of adversaries trying to thwart JJ’s mission, there is also an overwhelming sense of listlessness pervading the film. This juxtaposition makes for an oddly alluring concoction, conveying a sense of palpable dreamlike anxiety. Though the film is precise and evocative when it comes to the emotions encountered while living through a pandemic—profound loneliness, stark reflection and dull panic—Zeros and Ones falters in its attempt to communicate anything more substantial than mere sentiment.
Ferrara’s film is enlivened by Hawke’s presence, whether through pensive monologues, fervent line deliveries or personal messages as the film’s starring actor. Unconventionally, the audience is first introduced to Hawke before the opening credits even begin to roll. The actor immediately appears as himself on-screen—footage clearly recorded on a device in the comfort of his own home—and addresses the audience. He essentially promotes the film, singing the praises of Ferrara and his script. “I’m excited for the world to see Abel’s response to this wild year we’ve been living through,” Hawke declares in his introduction. Only then does the actual movie begin, Hawke’s acting credit fading into and out of the black background. When occupying the role of flatly philosophical JJ, he roams the ominously dark streets of Rome, pondering internally on the fate of Jesus while simultaneously embarking on his quest to save the Vatican. (“Jesus was just another soldier. A war casualty. But on whose side?”) Yet there are also moments of outward vigor, particularly when Hawke delivers hilarious rebuttals when confronted or captured by enemy forces. (“Don’t you even know that your strippers are Marxist?”)
Despite playing two characters who answer opposing calls to ideological action, it is the contrast Hawke projects in his bookended addresses to the audience that truly distills the film’s interest in intellectual exercises. After the end credits, Hawke appears once again: His eclectic wallpaper background remains the same, but it’s clear by his change in wardrobe and hairstyle that time has passed. It’s revealed that the beginning segment featuring Hawke was from an early campaign to raise funding for the film, and that some statements he made were not entirely true. For one, Hawke confesses that he had no idea what to make of the script when he first read it, let alone enough of a grasp on it to profess its beauty. “We made the film,” he asserts. “And I just watched it, and you just watched it.” Following an incredibly pregnant 15-second pause, he continues, “When Abel gave me the script, I didn’t understand a word of it. I really liked it, but I didn’t know what was happening.” He goes on to explain what he thinks the film is about now having seen it, but can’t really come up with something tangible. Words like “corrupt,” “tragedy” and “disease” are scattered in quick succession during a speech about humanistic optimism in the face of imminent annihilation. This is perhaps what Ferrara is most interested in evoking through his film: The point of the movie is to gauge human reactions to opaque abstraction, intentionally striving to stir an emotional response in the viewer—one such viewer even being Hawke himself. One could argue that this is essentially the goal of any artistic venture, but what is unique about Zeros and Ones is that this is the film’s only objective. There is little thought given to the actual storyline, character arcs or thematic throughline—all that matters is the emotion imbued within and evoked by the work.
Fortunately, despite the effort of trudging through the entirety of its 85-minute runtime, the film’s winding journey is still somewhat of a languid pleasure. Bolstered by a sharply competent central performance as well as darkly intoxicating shots of an ancient city, Zeros and Ones is an act of artistic abstraction that is mostly rewarding in its ambiguity. This is perhaps also why the film’s pandemic setting transmits an energy that is gripping in its familiar anxiety as opposed to cringy in its exaggerated melodrama. COVID is but an underlying layer of the film, its energy emphasized far more than its image. By sacrificing the ease of a conventional narrative structure, Ferrara has created a tangible portrait of our times—complete with nonsensical power plays and the paranoia of living in a pandemic. Yet instead of cultivating an arresting sense of captivation, it confounds by way of a middling fondness for idle musing. In the end, these thoughts don’t do much but serve as fleeting cerebral fodder.
Director: Abel Ferrara
Writer: Abel Ferrara
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Valerio Mastandrea
Release Date: November 19, 2021 (Lionsgate)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.