Abel Ferrara has never been much for salvation, at least not in the sense that it might be handed to us on a silver platter by someone who died more than 2,000 years ago; his “Bad Lieutenant” wasn’t exactly a self-portrait, but Harvey Keitel referring to Jesus Christ as a “rat fuck” didn’t come out of nowhere. In recent years, however, the grindhouse nihilism of Ferrara’s earlier work has been tempered by the personal acceptance of impending doom.
The scraggly Bronx-born filmmaker traded Catholicism for Buddhism around the same time as he relocated from New York to Rome, and movies like “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” “Tommaso,” and “Pasolini” — while still rank with the raw sewage that stops up human civilization — began to look inward for answers even as they confronted the end of the world. It’s as if the now-70-year-old Ferrara was steeling himself for some kind of structural collapse in the hopes that he might find the personal strength necessary to survive it. Watching that process hasn’t always rewarded the patience required to keep up, but if cinema (or civilization) feels like a ship that’s been taking on too much water, even Ferrara agnostics might struggle to think of anyone they’d rather follow to safety.
In other words, of course Abel Ferrara had a hog-wild COVID film loaded in the chamber as if he’d just been waiting for the streets to clear out so he could use them as his sets. And while “Zeros and Ones” may be incomprehensible even by the nonlinear standards of recent work like 2020’s Jungian dream poem “Siberia,” the confusion of its plot is offset by the conviction of its purpose. If most pandemic films have been the obvious product of compromise — of plans abandoned and reshuffled on the fly — Ferrara’s addition to this grim sub-genre feels like it’s been growing hair in the back of his fridge for God knows how long. It’s a scrambled call to action that’s finally being unleashed now that people can appreciate the stakes.
That Ferrara would eventually team up with Ethan Hawke seemed inevitable, but it’s curious that he would do so now, and with a film that can seem like the garbled second part of a call-and-response with Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” (at least if you cup your ears and listen for a certain wavelength). If that movie asked, “will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?,” this one answers, “why the hell are we waiting for Him?” If that movie insisted “well, somebody’s got to do something!,” this one agrees, albeit with a much vaguer understanding as to why, and a much vaguer sense of what ought to be done about it. And if that movie ended with the aborted suicide-bombing of a small country church, this one begins with the very successful — very crudely animated in After Effects — suicide-bombing of the Vatican.
COVID is never mentioned by name in “Zeros and Ones,” though it’s clear that the air is poisoned by one thing or another, and Ferrara takes full advantage of the virus’ décor, especially in an opening sequence that recasts members of the Italian military as extras in whatever kind of war it was that forced Rome under lockdown. A ponytailed Hawke, in the first of his twinned roles, enters the movie as an American soldier named JJ.
Sean Price Williams’ scuzz-noir cinematography and Joe Della’s reverb-heavy drum and guitar score fill the empty streets of the Eternal City with a post-apocalyptic emptiness that makes room for all sorts of oblique insinuations. Maybe there are terrorists afoot, or maybe the most immediate threat is of a different nature. Is JJ there on official government business, or has he gone AWOL in search of his missing twin brother Justin? It’s hard to say. “Have you figured out what you’re doing in my country?” someone asks him. “I’m working on it,” he replies.
Don’t bother doing the math, as “Zeros and Ones” only grows more abstract as it goes along. JJ prays at a mosque amid chatter of “death to the infidels,” but Ferrara isn’t pointing any fingers at religious fundamentalism; an imam shows up long enough to engage JJ in a conversation about how “Jesus was just another soldier in a 3,000-year war,” and then the Islamic angle falls away. Skype calls with scantily clad sex workers come with even less context (“they’re both negative,” a liaison boasts), and real-time surveillance footage from a dinner party full of Russian billionaires lasts just long enough for one of them to tell a long joke about Norman Mailer. Everyone JJ meets tries to shed his imperialist skin, but only one woman — pointing a machine gun at Hawke and demanding he impregnate a nameless girl on a hotel bed, perhaps so that she might give birth to a brighter tomorrow — even gets him to take off his clothes.
Meanwhile, JJ’s stringy brother is forcibly administered LSD and tortured for information by… someone. Justin never sought the comfort of a uniform, and it’s clear that he was a nation unto himself until the bitter end. Justin isn’t around for long, but his brief time on screen is built around a spittle-filled monologue that acts like kerosene for this funeral pyre of a movie. “Your strippers are Marxist, your cameraman is my brother,” he tells his captors. Later, after repurposing Woody Guthrie’s favorite weapon against fascists, Justin rants, “how come no one is lighting themselves on fire anymore!? The world is watching what happens here, and it’s up to us — the living — to finish the work of the dead so that they will not have died in vain.” And finally: “Nobody is going to stop me from living the freedom my way.”
What exactly those words inspire JJ to do is unclear. The film’s overarching threat is never made explicit, though the binary title that Ferrara has chosen for it — supported by an emphasis on digital media and a general disgust for the data that it uses for currency — suggests an urge to break the coding of modern civilization and topple the shadowy power structures that it holds in place. Nevertheless, JJ becomes increasingly determined to seize upon the instability that surrounds him and use this brief window of opportunity to remodel the world in a more equitable image. That process involves chintzy explosions, murdered strippers, and shots of soldiers pointing their rifles at who knows what, but the dying words of St. Francis speak through the grainy detritus of Ferrara’s digital jazz all the same: “Do what is yours to do.”
“Zeros and Ones” isn’t much of an entertaining sit — watching it feels like dusting off a cryptic artifact from a bygone civilization, its pleasures more archaeological than anything else — but every frame of this weird soup is suffused with the restless creative spirit of someone who’s been waiting for a new world order, and recognizes that we only get so many chances to make it happen. And if we blow it, which we almost certainly have by now, it won’t be because it wasn’t possible, but rather because we sat around waiting for someone else to program a different future.
“Zeros and Ones” premiered at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival. Lionsgate will distribute it in the United States.