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Simon Read [Film Festival 06.29.15] Italy post apocalyptic scifi drama

Lorenzo Sportiello's debut feature Index Zero is a gritty apocalyptic drama set in an unspecified part of Europe in 2035, following the struggle of two people searching for safety amidst an ecological crisis which has resulted in a divide between those whose 'index' (or use value) is considered sustainable (or profitable), and the outcasts who don't make the grade. The film is intense and very well realised in its visual design, but fails to develop its central characters, undermining the overall impact of the narrative. Nevertheless, for PA fans who like an original story this is certainly one to check out.

We meet beleaguered couple, Kurt (Simon Merrells) and Eve (Ana Ularu) as they stumble through a vast wasteland, surviving harsh conditions through eating carrion, drinking whatever water they find on the ground, and taking shelter in abandoned factories and industrial estates. Eventually they come across a kind of shanty town, where desperate crowds of poverty stricken people barter for food, water and medical supplies, while sinister police and army men keep watch, and drones hover nervously around, keeping an electronic eye on things. This opening act introduces us to the world of Index Zero, and it pulls no punches. Things look very bleak indeed. When Kurt and Eve discover a way into one of the few legitimate cities, which lies in a kind of 'safe zone', they exchange their remaining possessions for the chance to travel through an underground tunnel which will take them into 'The United States of Europe', and, they hope, to safety.

Following an excruciatingly claustrophobic scrabble through the tunnel and into the city, Kurt and Eve find themselves arrested by police, and at the mercy of state officials who separate and imprison them. Kurt is provided the opportunity to adjust his index and become part of the new society, while Eve, heavy with child, is informed that natural pregnancy is forbidden, and she therefore stands little chance of ever escaping the brutal detention centre...

While watching Index Zero, which is not your typical sci-fi and contains little in the way of action or special effects (although those effects it does contain are remarkably well utilized), it becomes clear that Sportiello is aiming to craft an allegorical drama, targeting the mistreatment of refugees by the west; the shocking treatment of our protagonists reflects news stories we see frequently in reality. This is admirable, and several moments during the film produce the requisite effect of forcing us to consider how unspeakably unfair our frightening little planet really is, when third world citizens are reduced to statistics as we sit around drinking coffee and bitching about celebrities. The problems with the film, however, do not lie in its intentions, but rather the fact that the characters of Kurt and Eve are reduced to mere ciphers for this message, never given the chance to establish or assert their own personalities. This may be an issue inherent in this kind of story, for the characters have (presumably) been so traumatised over the years that their motivation to communicate has been obliterated, and hence they wander around the narrative in a daze. That the first twenty minutes of the film contain almost no dialogue is rather telling; the opening chapter feels as though it establishes the place, but not the people with whom we travel.

We spend most of the second act watching Kurt adjust to life in prison, and he briefly makes friends with another inmate named Ien (Velislav Pavlov) who helps him to adjust to his new environment, but this development is short-lived. Kurt would rather brood darkly over the fate of his girlfriend than make a connection with another human being (even one who is trying to help him). A sympathetic doctor named Susan (Antonia Liskova), who attends to Eve and Kurt, provides us with something more interesting, torn as she is between her life as a citizen in the glimmering city beyond the prison walls, and the horror with which she is confronted in her work. However, despite Liskova's noteworthy performance, Susan is basically a side character and isn't given a great deal to do. As the narrative trundles on and Kurt begins to form a plan of escape, I couldn't help wondering why I wasn't more engaged with the story, until I realised that I didn't really know who the guy was, or why I was watching him.

To give the film its due, Sportiello succeeds admirably in realising a vision of the future as ravaged by poverty and inequality, and there are shades of Children of Men and Escape From New York in its presentation (as well as the Christopher Lambert film Fortress, but let's not go there!). Despite the emphasis here on tone over flashy gimmicks or explosions, the attention to detail and imaginative design elements which bring the year 2035 to life are genuinely impressive. Subtle changes in the landscape develop our understanding of this future, so while we are initially led to believe that Kurt and Eve are possibly the last humans on earth, when they arrive in the slum village, we're introduced to drones, quasi-fascist police and even robotic pack mules which carry supplies. Once inside the prison, we're privy to ubiquitous televised advertising and propaganda; news bulletins use authentic BBC graphics (complete with their current jingle music) to inform us of the state of things, and I rather liked this touch. Similarly, the instructional videos and interactive software used by the inmates are well accomplished and appropriately creepy. Shots of pre-existing buildings are enhanced with CGI to create the city and the ruins which lie outside, and the results are effective and often eerily beautiful. I appreciated the decision to allow the audience to 'feel' their way around this world, rather than hit us over the head with a preachy prologue. (You can just picture the Hollywood version: "In a time of uncertainty, in a world where nothing is as it seems...".) It should also be said that while Eve and Kurt are not particularly interesting characters, Ularu and Merrells both do a fine job, throwing themselves into difficult and unforgiving parts. The scene in the tunnel through which they travel to the city is almost certainly the highlight of the film, and for anyone squeamish about enclosed spaces, be warned that this contributes a highly uncomfortable ten minutes of claustrophobic tension.

Index Zero, then, is an easy enough film to admire. In telling its story, it forces us to consider uncomfortable truths, and does so with remarkable style and an uncompromising attitude. I liked this. Unfortunately, like our central characters, we find ourselves rather at the mercy of this cruel world, but without much to care about or with which to hang on. The ending of the film throws us a bone (of sorts), but not before pulling us through so much meandering bleakness that it doesn't entirely feel worth it. During the Q&A following the film, Sportiello was asked about the demise of one particular character which came as an unpleasant surprise. He replied, "Well, I don't like happy endings."

So, there you have it. Welcome to the future.

Recommended Release: Fortress

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