Daniel Graham’s Opus Zero is a collision of culture and ideas, a subtle and deliberate look at a series of characters seeking out answers in ways that are at times profound and at others merely perfunctory.
The German/Mexican production is told in two parts with a precis and a coda, the first half focuses on Paul (Willem Dafoe), a composer who is trying to recontextualize a Scandinavian symphony into his own form, using music to delve into fundamental questions about death and mortality. Having headed to Mexico to deal with the aftermath of his father’s death, Paul wanders the city looking for inspiration. He finds it in the not-quite-silence of a church, the negative space emitting its own form of subtle communication. He also finds it in the laconic description of a pig farmer who speaks with quotidian detachment of the 11 inch knife that’s plunged into the swine at the moment of death.
Along the way Paul becomes interested in the death of a Hungarian woman of the village, causing his interest to shift from his score into interaction with his neighbours. Using an electronic device that provides real time translation, this allows the non-diegetic fact that Dafoe speaks no Spanish to be accounted for, with conversations flipping easily between both English and the Mexican local dialect.
The second half provides a quietly satirical look at similar facets through the lens of filmmakers. Celebrated Mexican actor Andrés Almeida is also looking for stories in this small town, using documentary form to try and achieve some kind of cinematic authenticity. While Paul’s pursuit is one of intense listening in trying to somehow communicate with the silent and ineffable, the film crew stumble along gormlessly, traipsing the same path far more interested in what their preconceived path is rather than being open to the vagaries of fate and fortune.
This kind of aesthetic hubris is upended when a truly surprising, near miraculous thing occurs, startling the witnesses yet leaving many unanswered questions both narratively and tonally in the film.
As a debut Graham’s film is ambitious and heady, its philosophising at times enlightening and at others feeling quite pretentious. Graham’s biggest credit to date was as line producer on Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, and his transition to writer/director is an ambitious one. Eschewing easy answers, the film ambles along well thanks in part to charismatic turns by Dafoe and Almeida. Dafoe in particular has a long history of wresting with grand questions on screen, and he brings his sense of quiet awe and introspection to the work in ways that remains visually compelling. Almeida’s droll and sarcastic take is a nice buttress to the film cascading into somberness, providing an excellent counterbalance between the film’s two sections.
Opus Zero may be a modest work in terms of its scope and effect, but it’s highly ambitious in terms of its philosophical ambitions. Thanks to some fine performances that engage the audience even if some of the film’s ideas remain opaque, this is a film that may charm with its small town ethos, its spiritual yearning and its blackly comic elements that mix with the mystical. As Dafoe switches eagerly between smaller, international fare and larger blockbuster projects this work may best be appreciated as one of many fascinating detours this tremendous talent has made along his career path.