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DVD Special Feature: Abel Ferrara returns to the underground | reviews, news & interviews

DVD Special Feature: Abel Ferrara returns to the underground

DVD Special Feature: Abel Ferrara returns to the underground

Lockdown thriller 'Zeros And Ones' reflects the abiding concerns of a director caked in New York grime

Sin and redemption in the shadows: JJ (Ethan Hawke) in Zeros And Ones

Zeros And Ones’ poster alludes to Gerard Butler blockbusters (“The Vatican Has Fallen”), but Abel Ferrara’s name guarantees grungier fare. The sleaze of old Times Square still clings to the director, though he’s now a 70-year-old avant-pulp eminence living in Rome.

He has always needed name actors who’ll go all the way, six-time collaborator Willem Dafoe’s devotion keeping his recent career going. Ethan Hawke is the star this time, playing twins – soldier JJ and revolutionary Justin – on apparently opposite sides of a plot to blow up the Vatican.

Ferrara envisioned Zeros And Ones’ Rome as a “Casbah-esque” city with the atmosphere of Paris “at the end of the Occupation”. Made during full lockdown, it’s shot at curfew night, the light mostly grey and blue, aquatic and crepuscular, empty buses going down empty streets, a spartan, paranoid production cleaving gratefully to 2020’s eerie plague zone. These depopulated scenes feel like what they are: a very low-budget film shot in an actual apocalypse.

Zeros And Ones has many dead zones, empty scenes loitering in shadows and ennui. Vivid episodes flicker, as JJ runs into a suicide-vest-sporting homeless Russian, Chinese prostitutes, and a woman and young child in a cramped flat. He and the woman kiss through blue masks. A hazmat-suited clean-up crew seems like science-fiction detail, but is probably documentary. And in the suddenly golden light of a plush hotel, Russian fixers and beautiful female operatives cut a deal with the US ambassador over champagne and Norman Mailer yarns. Hawke’s Jesus-haired Justin, pictured below, is meanwhile interrogated - by Mossad, maybe - his relationship to potential Vatican bombs ambiguous. Taciturn as JJ, here Hawke lets fly with post-Dylan revolutionary invective. In previous times, his captor notes, they might be giving castor oil to this “partigiano” (partisan). “This machine kills fascists,” Justin says, as Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar.

Ethan Hawke as Justin in Zeros And OnesHawke filmed his own intro before filming Zeros And Ones, then his thoughts after watching it - considerably more cogent than the film itself, which they now conclude. “Script is a really…not accurate term,” he notes of Ferrara’s initial blueprint. “I didn’t understand a word of it.” Still, “I felt like somebody was up to something.” The cast Ferrara threw together to run through Rome’s strange streets is indeed a polyglot bohemian crew, including a Turkish carpet-seller, Kazakh model and stateless refugee. His idea of cinema is a camera and people in a room, and sometimes the reality of a situation, the thing he was “up to”, is caught: when a sharp cut slams us into two boxers smashing into each other, and when JJ is forced at gunpoint to impregnate a Russian agent (Ferrara’s wife Cristina Chiriac), the latter’s awkward hotel room intimacy feeling surveilled.

Zeros And Ones is very much late-period Ferrara, in a century when only the scandalous Welcome To New York (2014), with a garishly naked Gerard Depardieu as a Dominique Strauss-Kahn-manque, found an audience. Exiled in Europe by American indifference, he has returned to the underground, bringing an intrepid, bruising career full circle.

Abel Ferrara in The Driller KillerAfter directing and starring as The Driller Killer (1979), pictured above, and directing another vivid shocker, Ms. 45 (1981), Ferrara’s breakthrough came in parallel with Tarantino in 1992, Reservoir Dogs a mere appetiser to Harvey Keitel’s bruising comeback in the same year’s Bad Lieutenant (pictured below) They shared other hardcore actors, such as Christopher Walken. “We all need a good shave,” Clockers novelist/screenwriter Richard Price told me then of this high-testosterone pack. “I think Tarantino’s kinda kidding. But Abel’s a sick puppy. He ain’t kidding. He’s serious as cancer, man.” Ferrara spoke to me the same week from what sounded like an underground bunker, though we were both in New York, speaking in the sort of funny street-tough lingo Tarantino would struggle to script. Meeting him in London in 1997, when period gangster film The Funeral and monochrome vampire allegory The Addiction gave him his penultimate overground success, the tough guy front dropped, and he spoke of an extended childhood in an upstate New York “rural paradise”, wrecked by friends dying in Vietnam, one source of his films’ abiding violence and moral drama.

Harvey Keitel in Bad LieutenantCommitted Catholic Nicholas St. John wrote many of those films. Ferrara said in ’97 that he was more “trier” than believer, wanting to remake the world conventional religious definitions had helped construct; culturally Catholic, he now ascribes to Buddhism, too. His Zeros And Ones script intercuts Renaissance Christian paintings, and a Hawke voiceover quoting Jesus (“The world is the hiding place of God”) and St Francis of Assisi (“The hard road leads to a real life”). “How come no one else is lighting themselves on fire any more?” Justin asks, referencing the Buddhist priest who did so at the Vietnam War’s start, combining Ferrara’s original sin and present faith. Unlike his early films, the now sober, still spiritually questing director follows Zeros And Ones’ long night with a hopeful dawn, showing renewed humanity milling in post-pandemic Rome, his smiling young daughter centre-stage.

St. John stopped working with Ferrara after The Funeral. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams, best known for his work with the Safdie brothers and Alex Ross Perry’s more refined New York tales (Listen Up Philip) is a fine stand-in for former DPs Ken Kelsch (who caked Ferrara’s films in Manhattan grime) and Bojan Bazelli (who made 1990’s King of New York look so rich). Regular composer Joe Delia provides industrial abattoir synth-scapes, forming a trio with Danny Toan’s vibrating guitar feedback and Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, reminding you that Ferrara was raised with rock counter-culture dreams.

Zeros And Ones makes you miss the finished craft of King Of New York, The Addiction or Welcome To New York, none of which needed their star to tell you what just happened. It has some of the qualities of late films by Donald Cammell, Nic Roeg or Suspiria’s Dario Argento, where old genius proves fitful or out of reach. In the conventional terms its poster invites, you couldn’t say it’s good. It’s a film of shadows, elisions and interstices, to be watched in the deep dark. It may only exist fully in Ferrara’s dreams, and it’s in dreams that its best scenes return, rising up from the underground where its director endures.

The sleaze of old Times Square still clings to the director, though he’s now a 70-year-old avant-pulp eminence

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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