Opus Zero (2017)

Willem Dafoe is central to Opus Zero, Daniel Graham’s nebulous, Mexico-set feature debut.


by Alexa Dalby

Opus Zero

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Willem Dafoe does his best to make sense of an incoherent, pretentious film, director Daniel Graham’s feature debut. As Paul, Dafoe is a melancholy American composer who goes to a remote Mexican village where his father has died, presumably to clear his belongings from his house, maybe more.

In fact, the choice of location has a significance that’s perhaps not widely known in this country. Real de Catorce was once a prosperous colonial silver mining hub that was abandoned when the price of silver plummeted. It was the setting for several films, including Bandidas (featuring Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz), The Mexican (featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts), and some scenes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (featuring Humphrey Bogart), and of Puerto Escondido, directed by Gabriele Salvatores.

But Real de Catorce is now a hollowed-out ghost town in the desert, a pilgrimage site for both Catholics and indigenous shamanists. It’s centred on the 18th-century church of the Immaculate Conception housing the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. So it’s a strange, mystical place where anything might happen.

Paul is searching, maybe for inspiration, maybe for himself. How successful he is remains unanswered. Maybe. In his solitary quest in the village, he has conversations with the residents he comes across – there’s someone who knew his father and the priest of that church. Paul doesn’t speak Spanish but he uses some kind of simultaneous translation device to enable this.

Halfway through the film, the focus abruptly changes from Paul to a team of three travelling Mexican filmmakers who arrive in the village. They are making a documentary about whatever they chance to encounter on their travels in the region.

Paul is pointed out to them as an interesting local person so they interview him. An intense but inconclusive debate ensures between him and the director about his philosophy. And the filmmakers discover they have accidentally filmed an inexplicable event which could be supernatural or a miracle.

Whatever it was that may or may not have happened, the film passes very slowly in a nebulous, dreamlike miasma of inconclusive maybes. At the heart of it possibly is the idea redefining the idea of zero as not just a nothing but as the starting point against which all other ideas, creativity or happenings are benchmarked. Maybe some will love it. And if I’ve missed the point of it, I’m happy to be proved wrong.

Opus Zero is released on 9 August 2019 in the UK.

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