Opus Zero (2 stars)

Opus Zero

Willem Dafoe lends gravitas to Daniel Graham's philosophical but deeply frustrating debut

When his father dies in a remote Mexican village, American composer Paul (Willem Dafoe) travels there in search of answers to the metaphysical conundrums that impact his work as a composer. The exact nature of the questions are, however, never made clear in a film that eschews narrative clarity for dramatic texture. As a result, the directorial debut of Daniel Graham is both a singular and deeply frustrating experience.

Dafoe is an actor made for such existential grapplings, and delivers carefully-chiselled lines, such as 'death has no loopholes' with the requisite gravitas. For the first hour, as we follow his journey for inspiration through local churches, farmyards and pool halls, watching him talk to the locals via a nifty translation device, Opus Zero plays like a series of dense, dreamlike vignettes.

The action lightens up, and the film's ideas begin to take on more definition, with the arrival of a documentary crew who dominate the film's final 30-minutes. That its director is also called Daniel (a brilliantly acerbic Andrés Almeida) is the most obvious nod to the fact that writer-director Graham is working out some of his own philosophical dilemmas on-screen.

As the crew follow Paul's route through the village, things that seem ethereal through his eyes come into sharper focus. They get into an argument with the farmer about his refusal to kill his pig on camera. Locals are directed in exactly how to act naturally. They drunkenly muse on the nature of artistic truth while doing shots in the local bar. This is the shape of life and, whatever form or language it takes, its beats can be relied upon, moulded into something comfortingly familiar.

Or can it? More importantly, should it? The debate at the heart of Opus Zero seems to be whether the creative impulse is something to be worked towards, a preconceived goal to strive for, or whether it should simply be allowed to strike at will, driven only by fate. Yet, while a couple of final-reel curveballs — an inexplicable event caught on camera and promptly ignored, a shadowy coda — support this idea, such narrative concepts are mostly left floating, untethered, on the breeze.

Indeed, perhaps the most tangible thing about Opus Zero is that, underneath all that deliberate opaqueness, it is simply another film about a damaged man embarking on a quest for a supposedly universal truth that, ultimately, benefits nobody but himself.

Selected release from Fri 9 Aug.

Opus Zero

  • 2 stars
  • 2017
  • Germany, Mexico
  • 15
  • Directed by: Daniel Graham
  • Cast: Willem Dafoe, Andrés Almeida, Irene Azuela
  • UK release: 9 August 2019

Paul (Dafoe) is an American composer who travels to a remote Mexican village, after his father dies there, in search of answers to his questions. Unfortunately the exact nature of the questions is never made clear, and despite Dafoe’s gravitas and a lightening of tone in the last act, it’s deliberately and frustratingly…

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