It is a tenet of film studies that there exists a type of performer who is uniquely capable of seizing the attention and thereby organising a film around themselves; that these individuals in effect become the author of a work, no matter that they may have only been second or third choice for the role they play. The credits for this week's Opus Zero frame it as the handiwork of the writer-director Daniel Graham, yet it's more likely to be sold and approached as a Willem Dafoe film, one that invites interested parties to follow this most adventurous of performers into uncharted territory over its 84 minutes. Cinemagoers who enthusiastically followed Dafoe's progress through the corridors of the flophouse motel in 2017's The Florida Project and between the furrowed fields of 19th century Flanders in April's At Eternity's Gate may find the going trickier in Opus Zero's rural Mexico, where Dafoe's composer Paul arrives upon the death of his father. Graham needs his star as a fixed point of certainty amid what is otherwise a heavily stylised, unfamiliar vision of life south of the border. Here be darkened, flyblown, pockmarked rooms, populated by eccentrics who launch into sententious literary monologues; here be fogged-up exteriors that necessitate the wearing of coats and jackets, and preclude the merest trace of Latin heat; here be a gloomy farmer, hammering a sign that reads "Pray to God, But Keep Rowing" into apparently landlocked turf. Where are we? Ankledeep in an Art Movie, that's where - which is why Dafoe is here as a guide, a buoy, an especially craggy rock to cling to.
I spent much of Opus Zero wearing a puzzled frown, and it was only upon checking Graham's credentials that the fog began to clear. In his former job at a film distribution company, the writer-director had cause to interview many of the great late 20th century filmmakers, among them Theo Angelopoulos - and there is something deeply Angelopoulish about Opus Zero's measured tracking shots, tangled histories and landscapes in the mist. (A character called Maia may be a hat-tip to Maia Morgenstern, female lead of Ulysses' Gaze.) Seen through this lens, Dafoe becomes as much a way in for the audience as was Harvey Keitel in Ulysses' Gaze or Bruno Ganz in Eternity for a Day, steering us through involved conversations about religion and the past, towards pockets of more credible human interaction. We don't know why Paul lingers in these parts after collecting dad's death certificate - there's a search for a missing woman, then a quest for silence, much as the sound recordist in Pat Collins' 2012 film Silence undertook - yet Dafoe gets us listening out for clues. The title, we learn, refers to a symphony composed to reflect the impossibility of someone disappearing from this earth completely; "I'm in the middle of someone else's narrative, and I still haven't found what I'm looking for," Paul states, part-Pirandello, part-Bono. (The poor, lost lamb.) So far, so up itself, yet Graham displays a notably lighter touch than some of those old masters of cinema. One of dad's legacies to his son is a simultaneous translation device that immediately gets the film past the awkwardness of all those scenes in international coproductions where characters have to converse in different languages; it helps in a scene where Paul and a wisened local sit before a battered TV set answering a quiz show's unusually arcane questions.
Opus Zero could itself have resembled some ultra-niche intellectual exercise - one alternative title for it might be Being and Nothingness - but Graham keeps throwing his frames wide open, forever alert to the life going on around his shuffling characters, be that the sheep congregating on a mountainside, or the dude receiving a handjob on the back row of a tumbledown cinema. As Paul continues his tour of the neighbouring homes and churches - seasoned arthouse veterans might spy a dash of Atom Egoyan's 1993 curio Calendar hereabouts - you realise there were compelling thematic reasons for Graham to travel some distance beyond the usual Mexican locations: here is a world that hasn't been completely built over, that is very much informed by what came before. Opus Zero remains a puzzler, a film viewers are obliged to work and maybe wrestle with, in part as it keeps changing shape: consider the midfilm introduction of a documentary crew - headed by a figure named Daniel (Andrés Almeida, wearing Godardian specs) - who've themselves come looking for something that isn't instantly definable, start walking in Paul's tracks, and eventually stumble across the kind of miracle that (as yet) can only be wrought on film. This, I think, may be the self-reflexive crux of what Graham is getting at here: the paths we follow, whether intentionally or accidentally, and the unexpected destinations they lead us toward. Angelopoulos's hiking boots are big shoes to fill, but how encouraging it is - in 2019, with film culture being what it is - that someone should still be making the effort.
Opus Zero opens in selected cinemas from today, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.