“A society is defined not only by what it creates, but what it refuses to destroy.” Those familiar words, from American conservationist John C. Sawhill, open Lorenzo Sportiello’s solemnly intentioned debut feature — and they’re humbly appropriate ones for a sci-fi vision that repurposes more ideas than it invents. Set in a chaotically conglomerated Europe of the near future, where natural birth is outlawed and unsupportable citizens extradited, this soot-stained study of one pregnant couple’s survival struggle unfolds with a certain driving intensity, but is short on narrative or stylistic surprises. Economically shaped and resourcefully crafted, the English-language Italian production evidently has designs on international distribution; its commercial future may be as dim as its onscreen one, but it’s a decent calling card for its multihyphenate director.
If “Index Zero” is unlikely to attract a substantial following of its own, select viewers may come to regard it with interest as a kind of coincidental supplement to the themes of human conservation and loss-cutting raised in Christopher Nolan’s comparatively gargantuan “Interstellar.” Any Euroskeptics in the audience, meanwhile, could take the film to heart as a kind of extreme speculative allegory for the European Union’s uncertain future, whether or not that is Sportiello’s rhetorical intent. However one chooses to interpret his projection, though, it’s a notably bleak one.
The year is 2035, drought and famine have rendered the global economic recession terminal, and the EU has been supplanted by a sprawling administration calling itself the United States of Europe. (Whether that moniker means North America has been pulled into the coalition is left to the imagination, though several characters speak with the kind of mannered, continent-merging hybrid accent last heard in M. Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth.”) A vast Berlin Wall-style boundary has been built to separate these States from the razed wasteland still occupied by destitute humans deemed insufficiently “sustainable” to live in the region. Married couple Kurt (British thesp Simon Merrells) and Eva (Romanian rising star Ana Ularu, recently seen in Susanne Bier’s “Serena”) have lived their lives on the outside; for the benefit of their unborn child, they attempt to enter the States illegally.
After a fraught break-in mission — culminating in a nervy, claustrophobic sequence in a barely human-sized underground warren — Kurt and Eva reach the promised land, only to be captured by the authorities and sent to a high-security detention center. There, they are separated, based on the “sustainability index” individually assigned to them. Kurt’s index is high enough to allow him entry to a kind of potential-citizen purgatory; Eva is immediately marked for deportation, her pregnancy officially marking her as an excessive drain on government resources. (The new sustainables reproduce exclusively via costly artificial wombs.) The film’s latter half mostly adopts Kurt’s perspective as he battles chilly functionaries to save his future family.
Everything from “The Handmaid’s Tale” to “The Hunger Games” has been absorbed into Sportiello’s overcast story world, which conforms visually and logistically to long-established norms of dystopian fiction. Putting his commercials background to good use, the helmer presents an apocalypse the approximate color and texture of anthracite, realized with frugal skill by a coordinated below-the-line team: Ferran Paredes Rubio’s lensing makes a virtue of extreme desaturation and low-level lighting to mask the budgetary limitations of Fabrizio D’Arpino’s effectively rubble-ridden production design. Sportiello himself contributes the pic’s spare visual effects, and co-composed its brooding score.
It’s a familiar near-future, though one we arguably recognize more from other films than we do from our own lives. The trick in this genre is to challenge expectation without challenging credibility; Sportiello’s lean script, co-written with Claudio Corbucci and Francesco Cioce, mostly accomplishes the latter task, and Merrells and Ularu serve the film’s forecast with grim-faced integrity. Yet “Index Zero” never recalibrates the rules of its earnestly constructed environment in a way that prompts genuine alarm.