Rome has never looked so despairing. With curfew in full effect, an American soldier, J.J. (Ethan Hawke), makes strange rounds on the deserted streets encircling Piazza Vittiorio. Like Willem Dafoe’s nightwalker John LaTour in Light Sleeper (1992), J.J. is as determined to hit his destinations—drug hovels, equipment handoffs, midnight mass—as he is uncertain what it all adds up to. Meanwhile, COVID-19 precautions have taken on an appearance of martial law. Troops fire an infrared thermometer gun at Hawke’s forehead. Kisses are exchanged through paper masks. We see some of the most menacing uses of hand sanitizer in film history. Hawke’s twin brother (also Hawke, with shaggier hair) is undergoing harsh interrogation and has prepared, Christ-like, to martyr himself. For his part, J.J., alternating between a nocturnal delirium of computer screens and the grim shadows of the eternal city, feels caught up in holy war. “Jesus was just another soldier,” he says, pointing up at Vatican City’s outworks with a night vision camera, “but on whose side?”
Shooting during the grim winter nights of Italy’s harsh second lockdown, Abel Ferrara’s direction and the cinematography of Sean Price Williams are more attuned to the violent textures of pandemic reality than they are concerned with rehearsing a straightforward narrative. Winning Ferrara the Pardo for Best Director at the Locarno Film Festival, this late minor masterpiece advances the guerilla filmmaking icon’s deep preoccupation—beginning as early as Harvey Keitel’s divine freakout in Bad Lieutenant (1992) and last addressed in 2019’s Tommaso—with tainted imitations of Christ. The paradoxical need for a would-be redeemer of humanity to know sin at first hand animates the film all the way down, from Hawke’s passionate performance on through to the kinetics of Ferrara and Williams’s seedy roving camera. R, 86 min.