I like Abel Ferrara. This is a pedestrian way to start a review, but given how much the Bronx-born director divides opinion, it is germane to what follows. One of cinema’s true risk-taking seers, his films number the blood-soaked Driller Killer (1977), Bad Lieutenant (1992) in which Harvey Keitel stars, and Ms 45 (1981) in which Zoë Lund shoots down rapists dressed as a nun.
Ferrara’s latest offering, Zeros and Ones, is no less controversial or incomprehensible. Ethan Hawke plays an American special-forces soldier operating as a cog in an anti-terrorist unit based in Rome (Ferrara’s adopted lockdown city). In what is intended to be a visual mise en abyme, Hawke also plays his revolutionary twin brother, a left-wing revolutionary held captive in an unidentified location.
The brothers – somewhat prophetically, given the current situation in Ukraine – are also held hostage by a sinister network of Russian oligarchs who are in possession of compromising pictures of the brothers’ former involvement with them. Such artistic prescience (à la Michel Houellebecq) comes easily to Ferrara: in Welcome to New York (2014) he directs Gérard Depardieu as a sleazy politician raping his housekeeper, well ahead of Harvey Weinstein’s exposure some years later.
Of interest to readers of these pages is the Catholic iconography that Ferrara uses both explicitly and metaphorically to mine his autobiographical struggles with his own faith (a cradle Catholic, he converted to Buddhism in 2007). The sequence contains some rather dubious CGI imagery of the Vatican and other Roman monuments being blown up, and boasts as its subtitle “The Vatican has Fallen.”
Used as a backdrop, the Eternal City moves in and out of the frame – much as it has done in Ferrara’s spiritual life, we must imagine – but here bathed in the sinister light of modern-day technology in the form of phones, drones and various other electronic devices. Shot thus, the Colosseum looms before us, only half-recognisable in the neon light. The technology of the title Zeros and Ones is the target of Ferrara’s satire but also its sadness: a world in which iconography, specifically Catholic iconography, is irrevocably distorted in modernity.
Apocalypse stalks the film not simply in its more fanciful plot twists, but in the all-too familiar scattering of the material realities of the pandemic. These emblems – jettisoned masks, health checkpoints, deserted streets – go some way to connecting the struggles of JJ (Hawke) to the viewer before the film collapses under the rather confused weight of its ambitions. That said, Ferrara, who has long been attracted to the apocalyptic in films such as Siberia (2020), should be applauded for his attempts to render faith in scenes of abject crisis and transcendence even if these don’t always come off. In one scene, these attempts are anchored in JJ’s quotation of St Francis – “The world is the hiding place of God” – which pulls at so much of what is at stake in the film: the unlikely materials at our disposal, which just may be the places where the divine is found.
Unfortunately, the promise of the film is never fulfilled. It is also, for the most part, scattered with sexual violence and torture that is difficult to watch: scenes of forced procreation and, worse still, scenes in which Ferrara casts his wife (Italian actress Cristina Chiriac) as a Russian agent who must sexually punish JJ for his misdeeds. Such representations of violence feel gratuitous and part of a private prurience that Ferrara is known to conduct with his leading actors. Willem Dafoe, one of Ferrara’s selected muses, has long held the same unbounded relationship with the director as evinced in his other Roman film, Tommaso (2020).
Zeros and Ones is a disappointing watch largely because our understanding of the brothers’ relationship is compromised by the film’s oversized ambitions. What could have been an exploration of the hydra-headed nature of sibling conflict descends into tedious grandstanding on political issues: terrorism, American liberalism, state-surveillance and so on.
And yet, as I said at the beginning, I like Ferrara. Few directors are willing to take the same risks. Sadly these risks are at the expense of the film’s wider coherence, but there is undeniably something in Zeros and Ones that tugs at the itch of life and the impossibility of scratching it.
Arabella Byrne writes for the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund