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Film review: Zeros and Ones and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

by
25 March 2022

Stephen Brown reviews current film releases for viewing at home

Ethan Hawke as JJ in Zeros and Ones

Ethan Hawke as JJ in Zeros and Ones

ABEL FERRARA, that most Catholic of directors, presents us in Zeros and Ones (Cert. 15) with binary outlooks. The world is a cesspit of sin, which mortals will eventually leave, and it is also one, thank God, in which it is good to be alive.

He has been telling us this for more than 30 years, ever since he came into public view with The King of New York and Bad Lieutenant. This time, though, it is expressed in the language of our digital age, with a battery of computer-generated images, including variations in the frame rate and the use of night-vision filters. They make it a very dark film indeed.

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Training Day) plays JJ, a soldier detailed to prevent an attack on the Vatican. Typically with Ferrara, we are not that sure which side of the line between good and evil he occupies. Bad people often perform monumental acts of redemption in his films. Interspersed, as the movie is, with religious paintings and Gregorian chant, JJ’s sojourn through the mean streets of Rome takes on the feel of a via dolorosa. There is one puzzling encounter after another, revealing a network of enigmatic, often sleazy, characters and situations.

This time of lockdown produces some strange bedfellows, including Russian agents, Chinese dealers, and Israel’s Mossad. Churches and mosques strive to assert a better road to travel in an environment in which databases and information technology are revered. JJ’s mission is also complicated by believing that his twin brother, Justin (also played by Hawke), may hold significant information that could foil the terrorist plot.

The problem is that a defiant Justin, a prophetic revolutionary, is imprisoned and being tortured back home in America. JJ may even have had a hand in betraying him. Despite the wretchedness of Justin’s position, he flings out a barrage of radical bons mots at those interrogating him. It makes us question who is truly free here: his captors or him.

With all the digital special effects on display in Zeros and Ones, this is a film too clever by half. It becomes an overwhelmingly baffling experience. On the other hand, it does illustrate the dangers that humanity puts itself in through being so beholden to technology. We are becoming cyphers, mere zeros and ones. Included in the screenplay are words attributed to St Francis: “The world is the hiding place of God” and to be found within ourselves as incarnate beings.

Ferrara’s binary vision of despair and hope flies in the face of those asserting disbelief. The film is set at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the characters’ face coverings are a visual metaphor signifying immunity from the time-honoured ancient verities that the city of Rome represents in the picture. One yearns for a moment of transcendence, a kindly light amid the encircling gloom. The movie is a judgement on us all: the light has come into the world, and people have preferred darkness (John 3.19). We are left to ponder which of Hawke’s brothers is the better equipped to lead us out of it.

On digital platforms. On DVD from 4 April

 

Sheila McCarthy as Polly in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

THE title of Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Cert. 15) makes sense only when this T. S. Eliot quote is completed by “I do not think that they will sing to me” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). It is that almost divine desire for love, whether or not requited, which drives the film’s narrative. MUBI is now streaming this 1987 movie to new audiences.

Sheila McCarthy is brilliant as Polly, a quirky 31 year-old, not really sure where she fits into Toronto life. Opportunities as a temp are spasmodic and short-lived. One employer describes her as “organisationally impaired”. The chance to work at Church Gallery for an elegant French-Canadian woman, Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon) feels heaven-sent. Here is someone who is everything that Polly would like to be: sophisticated, charming, confident, knowledgeable, and artistic — and deeply loved by Mary Joseph, Ann-Marie MacDonald combining a sensuous allure with the wisdom of a muse.

Gabrielle is kindly, overlooking her secretary’s dismal typing skills — letters where correction fluid predominates — in favour of having a loyal, hard-working assistant. She, with Prufrock, has measured out her life in coffee spoons, recognising a desire to succeed at something on her own. In a Japanese restaurant, where the seating and dishes utterly defeat Polly, Gabrielle says that she is after making something beautiful that will in turn make her beautiful for ever. Polly is unable to tell her curator what we already know: that she would love to be universally recognised for her photography. This quest for eternity conflicts with tacit acknowledgement (Prufrock again) that neither is Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be.

Anticipating the 1994 stage play Art, there is a hilarious conversation, worthy of Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner, between Gabrielle and a potential buyer. Art-speak references are made regarding a painter’s “oblique pragmatism” and “hopefulness in his contextual destruction”. Gabrielle, despite the surface appearances of her life, runs the risk of gaining the whole world and yet losing her soul. Polly’s unpretentiousness provides a refreshing contrast.

Eliot’s source for the mermaids reference is John Donne’s “Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star”. Both poems harbour a hope against hope and entertain the possibility that the ecstasy of carnal love concurs with divine fulfilment. In Polly’s case, her devotion to the curator is not sexual. It is more akin to the courtly love that, it is argued, Dante had for Beatrice. Eliot’s poem (and, by association, this film) was especially influenced by Inferno. The emotionally frozen Prufrock — hence Polly and Gabrielle, too — is a modern counterpart to the character Guido, whom Dante apprehends burning in hell. Guido belatedly expresses where he went wrong.

Prufrock/Gabrielle/Polly remain uncertain about how to conduct themselves through life. The difference, however, lies in Prufrock’s believing that he is more like Lazarus, capable of resurrection. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing does Eliot proud, examining the lives of people wondering whether they “dare disturb the universe”, asking which of the two women is more likely to respond to the summons to New Life if those “sea-girls” were to sing to them.

Available via MUBI streaming service

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