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About as far removed from a Bela Tarr film as Wes Anderson’s features are from Michael Bay’s, the Hungarian concoction Zero playfully experiments with several genres while pushing a clear environmental message. As if working its way through a silent-style comedy, a sensual melodrama, a violent yet scrappy action movie and an African road movie wasn’t enough, the movie also features renowned cult actor Udo Kier in what’s essentially the third lead role as a powerful captain of industry. Loud and clear where its don’t-kill-off-the-bees message is concerned but intentionally messy in just about every other department, Gyula Nemes’ unclassifiable clambake of a movie should nonetheless garner some cult-film buzz on the festival circuit after its world premiere in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition.
The film opens with a close-up of some busy bees, whose not very advanced thoughts — “Hey, you stepped on my foot!” — are voiced in speech bubbles, like in comic books. The film then races through 100,000 years of history in a quick montage that suggests how respect for the bees has disappeared, and, at an alarming rate, the bees themselves with it. The first of the four genres, a comedy from the silent era, starts out in black and white in a modern-day honey factory, though the product is so industrialized it doesn’t taste anything like the real thing.
When the thirty-something director of the establishment (Krisztian Kovacs, the lead of Nemes’s first feature, My One and Onlies) tastes real honey, he ditches his life with his wife (Hungarian arthouse darling Orsi Toth, White God, Delta) and decides to start keeping bees himself. As color starts to seep into the proceedings, the narrative changes — though intertitles persist for quite a while yet — and the director falls in lust with a woman (Czech actress Martina Kratka, Jan Hrebejk’s Shameless) and the couple make love, which includes using honey to glue live bees to the naked body parts of the other.
The narrative has both a low-fi, almost Michel Gondryesque approach to flights of fancy and a constant dreamlike quality from the start, with the narrative working more by association than more conventional narrative means. On more than one occasion, it is hard to keep up with how all the different parts of the film fit together and make a coherent whole. The trip to Africa is also glimpsed at the start of the film before it finally becomes the closing piece of the genre-pastiche quartet, for example, though why exactly is not clear. The role of Kier, who plays the CEO of a mobile phone company that gets in trouble because the radiation from his towers might be partly responsible for killing off the bees, is also somewhat vague. In the credits, he’s listed as playing “The Lord of the World,” though how this relates to his mobile-phone persona isn’t entirely clear. To complicate matters further, he also seems to be the father of Kratka’s character.
The most easily readable part of the film is part three, in which protests against those who directly or indirectly kill the bees grow into what seems like a national movement (aided by stock footage). Using an innocent-sounding song as a counterpoint, Nemes shows crop dusting, forests burning and massive protests that end with everyone receiving a text message that vows to “take revenge for the murder of the bees.” The result is that Kier’s character is kidnapped and negotiations result in electricity becoming available only through generator bikes, firewood being used for heat and mail pigeons becoming the replacement for email.
If this all sounds plenty crazy, that’s because, well, it is and the film’s DIY aesthetic and rough handle on narrative will be tiring for mainstream audiences while a small fringe will delight in the film’s sense of invention and daring. As Vivaldi goes through his seasons on the soundtrack, an extremely violent call to action emerges from the material before the film drops its most audacious cinematic coup (which won’t be revealed here). A low-budget angry environmental pamphlet and a genre parody rolled into one, the film is undeniably the work of a director sticking his neck out.
Production companies: Playtime, Endorfilm, Kataput Film, 42Film, Mediawave 2000
Cast: Krisztian Kovacs, Martina Kratka, Udo Kier, Orsi Toth, Declan Hannigan, Nikos Fokas, Laszlo Nemes, Andras Szirtes, Istvan Lenart, Wilhelm Droste, Mohamed Maiga, Dicko Jibrilla
Director: Gyula Nemes
Screenplay: Tamas Beregi, Gyula Nemes
Producer: Gyula Nemes
Co-producers: Ivan Angelusz, Jiri Konecny, Eike Goreczka
Director of photography: Balazs Doboczi
Editor: Peter Politzer
Music: Albert Markos, Kopir Rozsywal Bestar, Antonio Vivaldi, Dicko Boubacar, Dicko Issiaka
Sales: HNFF World Sales
No rating, 83 minutes
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