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ZEROZEROZERO SEASON 1

DID AMAZON BURY ZEROZEROZERO? OR WAS IT SIMPLY SMOTHERED BY COVERAGE AND complications from the COVID-19 pandemic? Released in February 2020 for its Prime service customers it did not seem to attract the typical Amazon push(and overpush) it has awarded to its other recent first-run original series and programming. The millions and millions of people who visit the Amazon website banner page on a daily basis were far less likely to see a promo for ZeroZeroZero than endless ones for say Hunters, which seemed to be red lighted in the wake of HBO’s reboot of the Watchmen franchise. I will leave it to others to consider does the need for the worlds of the Nazi hunting film to intersect with Blaxploitation, for more hyper-liberal fantasias to be created, especially after Inglourious Basterds.

Whether true crime or literary docudramas Roberto Saviano’s work is perfect for the cinema. He provides enough key ingredients for sustained interests: multiple international locations; unsavory characters who operate in a world balancing hypocritical codes of honor while dispensing senseless violence at every turn and an acute understanding of the geopolitical nature of crime, especially concerning but hardly limited to the drug trade. Saviano’s dazzling writing takes a scapel to perceived notions about crime and uncovers more secret arteries. His favorite metaphor is that of a deeply rooted tree with many branches spreading across the globe, yet whose branches can trade locations at any time and change over time. With an anthropological zest Saviano will detail why the Columbian cartel which dominated the transportation and sale of cocaine in the Seventies and Eighties was supplanted by the Mexican crime world before the Nineties began. Of why now coastal Africa is central for European drug consumption.

Not bad for someone who has to live in hiding, under the protection of the Italian police.

The series attempts to do this with mixed results. It may be instructive for anyone who has read or is reading the book to not be a stickler for an exact transferrence. The series is less faithful to the exact text as both the movie and television versions of Gommorah were. Indeed exposure to Saviano’s work may be a hinderance for enjoying ZeroZeroZero as filmed entertainment. The shadows for some of the characters and plot lines are present, yet are swamped by Hollywood hokum regardless of the series’ international production origins.

Mexico. Italy. America. Africa. Four locales chosen by the creators thus needing representative characters from those territories.  A Mexican paramilitary unit. A mafioso power struggle between a grandfather and his grandson, the former hiding from the Carabinieri, the latter openly swaggering around the globe. A white American shipping family based in New Orleans grown rich by the drug trade. The new drug hubs of Senegal and Casablanca. Jihadists Tuaregs outside Mali. ZeroZeroZero is one of those artistic offerings where seemingly diverse characters and locales will converge in unexpected ways.

Zero combines the bleakness of film noir with the drug trade/crime story genres. Depicting a byzantine world of barbaric duplicitous actions, nihilism, abject immorality and avarice, the sun in this universe is a black one.

There should be no one to “root” for, if the show creators had not unfairly and unwisely stacked the deck, against itself. And in a manner so Hollywood melodrama that it’s beyond Hollywood melodrama. And it doesn’t take much to guess which character or characters is to receive a special compensation of pity or compassion from the “audience.”

In the Seventies Italy and New York City were the locus of most films about organized crime, chronicles of the heyday of the mafioso and the American mob. It was not just The Godfather Saga or Mean Streets but almost every Blaxsploitaton film as well(eg,. Across 110th Street, Superfly, Black Shampoo et al). And while this continued into the 1980s with Martin Scorsese‘s epics of NYC mobster life(the background of Raging Bull and the foreground of GoodFellas, Brian DePalma‘s remake of Scarface and the television show Miami Vice centered on Miami as the new epicenter of American organized crime, the cocaine trade of course being the chief culprit. Those latter two examples had their compass set towards the drug cartels from Venezuela and Columbia not to whatever was occurring in New York City or Sicily. All those earlier urban films were dominated by the international market for heroin and other narcotics. But the new organized crime films reflected then and now realities from the rise of cocaine consumption, including crack.  (See New Jack City.)

While the book details why Columbia and Venezuela greatly faded as an international powerhouse, the series takes it as a given that the audience will know any general mention of a cartel in the media is a reference to Mexican models. That ascension so dominates the American news and entertainment market that the association onerously approaches a deeply racial stereotype and fear, even when reading or hearing journalistic accounts of  a “lawless” Mexico overrun by drug warlords.

An American man lies dying, his body already sprawled out like the white chalk of a murder outline,  the locale which is later revealed as Monterrey, Mexico. An old Italian man inside a fortified rock or cave awakens also at night and immediately checks hi-tech survelliance cameras and then reads the back of a religious saint’s card which has a mortuary listing. Cut to a religious festive parade in an Italian city, during which a handsome, bearded young man walking beside his wife and their young son is repeatedly stopped or offered salutations. He is addressed as Don Stefano. And then the camera whips us back to Monterrey, following a disrobing woman who then enters a cocaine center where women save for their bras and panties and a few surgical accessories process the drug for street purchases, the product guarded by dressed man with machine guns. A cartel lieutenant or captain receives a tense phone call from one of his superiors and has to leave immediately to rectify a festering problem. This will be the last we will see of him as he is finally taken down by special ops after a pulsating firefight through an open market district, in which a child is killed during the crossfire.

The cocaine being chopped, measured, bagged and then canned along with jalapeno peppers is obviously heading for somewhere other than the streets of Monterrey. That destination is an Italian port city. It will be the cargo of a ship owned by the slain American. And that passage which will be tumultuous even before it reaches Senegal will link these and other characters in life shattering ways.

The dead man(Gabriel Byrne) was a shipping magnate from New Orleans who before his untimely death had been dining with members of the Leyra cartel. The targets of a brash nocturnal grab escape unharmed but not their guest. His survivors are a daughter named Emma(Andrea Riseborough); who has joined the real family business, and her younger brother, Chis(Dane DeHaan), barred by their father because Mike is suffering from the same rare neurological disease which killed his wife and their mother. As she died at an early age, the same spectre looms only over him, for Emma has tested negative for the traits. Following a funeral in New Orleans they arrive at their family home, startled by the omnious presence of strangers who have been awaiting their return. Don Stefano and another member of the ‘Ndrangheta warn them that their ship is not to reach Gioia Tauro. Emma has never met Stefano but her father was a friend and a business associate of Don Miu La Piana; who even attended her birth christening in New Orleans. Furthermore it is Don Miu who has ordered the latest shipment of cocaine worth more than $30 million.

In addition to his power struggle with his grandfather(who may have had his father murdered for violating a mobster’s code), Stefano is quite a sexist. Which explains why he underestimates the waifish Emma, who has her own heavies, and the cargo advances from New Orleans on schedule. But then a crisis will derail it from Italy to Dakkar, triggering unexpected diversions, any of which might turn fatal. Despite the international alliances which helmed the series and the modernity of the topics, Zero could have been a B-movie in 1950. To paraphrase an old Aretha Franklin standard, there ain’t no way a sick man-boy like Chris is going to miss out on a great adventure.

Intercut throughout the series is the spectacular, perplexing rise of Manuel and the young men he commands…leading them straight to the Leyra brothers. Played by Harold Torres, Manuel is a murderous enigma. Is he a Travis Bickle? Is he Scarface? He’s a Christian zealot, but also a mercenerary and a cult leader and anything but a Robin Hood. Torres has a brooding, menancing ferocity which leaps off the screen, registering even before an audience an truly meditate upon the meaning of this unforgettable character. Almost devoid of anything resembling an interior dialogue, save for the religious sermons he listens to in between murders, Manuel is offered as a cipher, frankly because Torres doesn’t appear to add anything relative to a character arc. I’m not implying that Torres doesn’t have range as an actor, only that whether by accident or design Manuel’s psychology remains inert to us. Contrast this with Robert DeNiro‘s performance in Taxi Driver, granted a superior work of art. Without betraying the character, without simplifying him to some “acceptable” way of an audience understanding who he is, DeNiro reveals enough of Bickle’s inner world psychology through various ingenious means, thus humanizing a monster. Of course works of fiction can also have characters bordering upon the autistic, yet something must be conveyed to an audience to explain even a tiny portion of their being. Think Mersault in Camus’ The Stranger. Torres is exceptional playing upon his physical features and upon maybe our repressed, politically incorrect assumptions of him–in other words he looks like a Mexican drug dealer/gang member/criminal/psychopath. But his performance is all factual. We see how smart and cunning Manuel really is, but it stopped there. It has long been said that with the best actors the audience can feel them thinking inside their characters. Again DeNiro did this in Taxi Driver and I think Al Pacino did the same in Scarface, yet Torres could not broach that dimension in Zero, or the character resists that lifeline of communication. It’s a great but limited performance.

A Leftist ideology is not a requisite for being unhappy that the creators of ZeroZeroZero have elevated the white American characters into being the rooting interest for a surrogate audience. The Lynwood clan are not shown as violent–or at least hands-on violent, unlike the other characters. Their intelligence and pragmatism is covertly stressed in many scenes. And amazingly depicted as abused pawns in the drug game, constantly threatened by swarthy outsiders, from Italians to the colored races of Africa and Latin America. The Lynwoods don’t carry guns. And although they transport cocaine and are part of a hyper-violent, unpredictable world with duplicity a constant currency, they travel sans bodyguards. We are virtually instructed by cinematic collective memory to support these noble Lynwoods, and because the series doesn’t depict them as violent felons, they have almost been completely ruined from the moral judgment which should be administered to them as well as with the other characters.

The plot line of the dying male scion is almost insufferable. To say its a cliche is to be unkind to cliches. I am not attacking the actor’s performance only that the character’s presence detracts and devalues ZeroZeroZero‘s impact. It’s a lazy, terrible decision from the brain trust.

This is not true for the star making turn of Riseborough as Emma, her father’s chosen successor. Whether as a conscious homage or not, Riseborough physically evokes the American soccer star (and right wing pariah)Megan Rapinoe, with her hairdo and tomboyish attire. The difference is that Riseborough’s Emma is likeable. A feminist depiction or not, she’s a fascinating, alluring character. Waifish, petite, thin, she’s always the smallest person in a room, and often the only female in a space. Only physically  can Emma be overpowered. She has a dogged, steely determination which can not be diminished, regardless of obstacles bureaucratic or barbaric.  It’s debatable about whether the show’s creators saddle Emma with a damsel in distress motif or are being matter-of-fact in how she would fare in perilous situations. I don’t object to the flaw of her being pigheaded, but to the idea that her little brother is her savior on more than one occasions has a tinge which is unbecoming.

Regardless, Riseborough is terrific. She’s riveting to watch. She makes you share Emma’s thoughts, her weariness and exhaustion. She dominates every frame, not from bulk(she can’t be 100 pounds or taller than five-two) but a cinematic charisma indicative of great character actors. I was unfamiliar with her work prior to Zero, so for me she is a major discovery.

There are echoes of The Godfather and of course The Sopranos with the Italian characters. You are helpless not to remember the interactions of Don Corleone and his grandson watching Don Minu behaving with his grandson, just as the covert regicidal machinations of Stefano(and Don Minu) will have you reliving similar moments between “Junior” and Tony Soprano.

Or if you’re lucky the ‘Ndrangheta storylines evoke Saviano’s first book, Gomorrah, with its depiction of Northern Italian mobsters involved in endless cycles of murder, botched deals, and international deals of all sorts, including legal ones, while often hiding from the pursuant police. Often in plain sight. Or literally in man caves, as elaborate as anything depicted in movies.

The roles of the grandfather and grandson are patterned from the genre, yet the actors reverberate some new revisionist excitement. Giuseppe De Domenico is good but he’s not match for Adriano Chiaramida as the elder LaPiana. It’s a dream role for Chiarmida, who inhabits every molecule of a deceptively decripit old man forced to live like a hi-tech hermit while outsmarting both the police and his rivals. He’s more physically hobbled than Camarado Soprano, but a far greater thinker. Scarecrow thin, blind in one eye perhaps from untreated glaucoma, graveled in voice, hobbled and needing a cane, he is feeble only in appearance and underestimation from his enemies. To their chagrin he clings to the old ways, to the honor of la casa nostra. The parallels to Don Coreleone are obvious, but Chiarmida flames the role from the inside out, adding his own interpretation to the archival shadow.

The violence in Zero borders on the truly shocking or at least disturbing, no matter how many gangster or criminal world movies and television one has seen. This is not violence played for any laughs a la Tarantino nor can it be catalogued as “horror porn” alongside movies such as the Saw and Hostel series. No matter the intention of a filmmaker violence depicted on screen is always stylized, crafted in advance of filming to arouse a visceral reaction from the audience. The filmmaker is as complicit as the audience, who fluctuate between states of vicarious wish-fulfillment and moral repugnance, both of the violence an  their own self-awareness.

The Mexican scenes are among the most unsettling I have ever seen because they unfortunately reek of reportage. Not to spoil anything but there is a scene of such moral depravity in one of the middle episodes which upset me so much I consider not continuing what had otherwise been an enjoyable bingefest. Without trying to be dramatic or moralistic I assure you that the scene will linger with you for a very long time.

Each episode of ZEROZEROZERO, regardless of whom served as the official director, obeys a set narrative pattern, building to a climax of great intensity, then pausing with a jumpcut-like device which reverses the linear chronological narrative and approaches the same apparent climax from another character’s perspective. There is a post-Tarantinoesque flavor to this which is almost shocking and daring in the first one or two episodes but becomes a tiresome pattern thereafter.

Though flawed ZeroZeroZero is a worthy addition to the crime film canon of yore. And there is a threat of a second season to mull over.

And now about the book….

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