ZEROES AND ONES
Called to Rome to stop an imminent terrorist bombing, a soldier desperately seeks news of his imprisoned brother — a rebel with knowledge that could thwart the attack. Navigating the capital’s darkened streets, he races to a series of ominous encounters to keep the Vatican from being blown to bits.
Zeros and Ones is a surrealistic mash-up from Abel Ferrara – a political and pandemic thriller that is simultaneously thoughtful and baffling. This is a film that invites the viewer in while still keeping them at a distance. The film is bookended by two videos featuring start Ethan Hawke, who speaks candidly to the audience about his excitement and experience relating to the film. Hawke freely admits that he didn’t understand Ferrara’s script when he received it, but that he really liked it. Having just finished “Zeros and Ones”, Hawke’s point resonated.
The film’s achievements are especially impressive given it was filmed in Rome during a rigid COVID lockdown. By nature of these restrictions, the majority of the action is restricted. The camera is limited to claustrophobic rooms and empty nighttime streets, but cinematographer Sean Price Williams makes the most of it. The outdoor scenes, in particular, are quite striking: sanitation workers clad in PPE decontaminating a subway car, mist mingling with the glow of the street lights.
Our protagonist (Ethan Hawke’s “J.J.”) is an enigmatic military man, his face hidden beneath a black mask even when he’s in plain sight. He’s on a journey through Rome, but his objectives (and destination) are murky. He’s trying to locate his twin brother (also Hawke), an imprisoned revolutionary who may hold the key to thwarting a terrorist plot on the Vatican. While this may sound like the plot of a multi-million dollar action film, Ferrara’s vision is wisely more conservative. He is more interested in backroom deals and shadowy government priorities than big explosions.
Hawke offers a game performance in the dual role – although he seems to have far more fun playing the revolutionary brother than the military one (after all, who doesn’t want to spit lines like, “Why is nobody setting themselves on fire?!”)
J.J.’s encounters with other characters throughout the film are always one layer removed – he’s always speaking to them through a phone screen, from behind a layer of glass, or filming them using his own camera. It’s a strong artistic choice, but also puts much more emphasis on the dialogue to drive the action of the film, and contributed to an overall lack of visceral connection to the material.
Ultimately, Zeros and Ones is a wonderful example of artistic vision flourishing under restrictive circumstances. One has to wonder how we will look back historically and evaluate these films against history once the pandemic finally recedes (fingers crossed.) I’m glad Hawke and Ferrara were still willing to act up despite having to mask up.
Zeros and Ones – In Select Theaters, On Demand and Digital on November 19, 2021. Ethan Hawke, Valerio Mastandrea, Cristina Chiriac.