When Abel Ferrara was awarded the Swisscom honor at the Locarno Film Festival earlier this year, he screened a preview clip of 4:44: Last Day on Earth, and it was, well, not great. In flat, featureless digital, Willem Dafoe violently emoted to a woman via Skype, only to be interrupted by a screaming harpy bursting out of stage left. Skype, really? It didn’t bode well for the finished product. But such is the off-kilter talent of Ferrara that in the full film, the scene becomes an explosive release of pent up energy instead of a stilted moment of melodrama; even the Skype motif manages to make an emotional impact.
Drawn again and again to ideas of faith and redemption, in 4:44, Ferrara picks up the thematic thread he dropped six years ago with Mary, a film that grappled with spiritual crisis and repentance through, among other things, a re-examining of the Christ story. Here, Jesus is swapped out for the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist philosophy permeates the lives of the protagonists, artist Skye (Shanyn Leigh) and actor Cisco (Dafoe), who hole up in their cavernous Lower East Side apartment to confront the end of the world, forecast for the next morning. They watch the news, say goodbye to far off relatives through the internet, and alternate emotional freakouts with periods of enlightened acceptance.
4:44 has the misfortune to be making the festival rounds at the same time as its thematic twin Melancholia; it suffers unfairly in the juxtaposition, made as it is on an extremely modest scale. But the two films originate from such different schools of filmmaking, and from such vastly different budgets, that comparing them further is an awkward and fairly futile business. Ferrara goes for improvisational warmth and realistic grit where Von Trier chooses laconic dialogue and chilly surfaces. 4:44 is certainly less pretty— unlike Ferrara’s richly composed Mary, it’s shot on the RED camera and looks harsh and undistinguished, with the exception of the inventive use of real footage of the Northern Lights to illustrate the weakening of the ozone layer.
Shrugging off disaster film tropes, 4:44 dispenses with teeth gnashing extras and fancy explosions; a single moment of violence echoes 9/11, when a man casually leaps to his death from a neighboring fire escape. The curious calmness of New York, viewed from the spacious windows of Cisco’s apartment, suggests that soothing everyday habits might prevail until the very end. Even the gyms are still full of people trudging on the elliptical, firming their glutes for the final reckoning. Cisco and Skye order Vietnamese for dinner, and a delivery boy promptly shows up, mere hours before the end. For those habitually annoyed by Ferrara’s style, the lumpy special effects and earnest theatrics of 4:44 will be off-putting, but only Ferrara could capture the visceral loyalty of New Yorkers to their doomed city, bunkered down in their beloved neighborhoods, eating takeout as their last meal.