Director Harry Cleven Achieves Something Truly Remarkable With His Hypnotic Experimental Sci-Fi Film, “Zeria” [Chattanooga Film Festival]
Originally published on Elements of Madness.
Harry Cleven’s Zeria is a wondrous and enlightening celebration of all the things that make us human. Using a combination of miniature sets, practical effects, and puppet-like masks, Cleven creates a breathtaking and unforgettable world that’s mesmerizing, comforting, and terrifying all at the same time. The film is narrated by the last living man on Earth as he writes a letter to his grandson, Zeria, the first human born on Mars. The narrator (voiced by Merlin Delens) tells his grandson about his full and complicated life, offering insight, wisdom, and heartbreaking truth. He talks about his birth, his troubled childhood, his love life, the sociopolitical changes that happened throughout his lifetime, and his lifelong search for meaning, all while seeking connection with someone who has never experienced life on Earth.
Zeria is part sci-fi and part experimental cinema, and it’s defined by a peaceful and optimistic tone. Watching the film is like listening to an elderly relative tell stories while you try to imagine what their life was like. Cleven’s visuals are impressionistic and dream-like, and everything is clouded by a gray filter that sets a subdued tone. The design of the film is both of this world and otherworldly. Some shots evoke the vastness of outer space, while others draw you into the cold dreariness of crowded city life. The swirling abstract images in the opening credits look like deep-sea creatures, or perhaps microscopic organisms, reminding us how much unknown life exists right here on our own planet. Every shot of Zeria gives us the opportunity to think about life outside of ourselves, inspiring us to seek connection with the world around us. By putting actors in large masks that look like Jim Henson puppets, Cleven eliminates the subtle facial expressions that normally make actors unique. He thereby forces us to focus on the space between the actors and the ways in which their bodies interact, calling attention to the importance of human connection.
Even though Zeria is a first-person narrative, the details about the narrator’s life are vague. Rather than commenting on every single second of the story, the narrator frequently pauses and lets the images speak for themselves. The issue is that it’s difficult to understand what those images are trying to tell us. The action meanders back and forth among the narrator’s memories, dreams, and imagination, making it difficult to follow the finer points of the story. Plus, with such a diverse combination of on-screen elements, it’s hard to figure out what’s supposed to be real. When the narrator finally jumps back in after letting the images do the talking, he’ll make implications about what we’ve just seen rather than fully explaining it. However, the hazy story and loose details aren’t detrimental to the film. It’s clear that Cleven isn’t trying to tell a traditional story, but to give an overall impression of human life and highlight the universal aspects of the narrator’s experiences. Zeria is like an impressionist painting, capturing the deeper parts of life and creating an overall picture of the narrator’s experiences without getting caught up in the details. It’s what you might see if you could get inside someone’s head and watch their thoughts as their life flashes before their eyes.
Even with vague details, Zeria paints a full and complete picture of a human life by exploring a wide range of emotional experiences. We may not understand the how and why of the narrator’s story, but we can understand what he was feeling in every moment. That’s what allows us to connect with him and make meaning out of the film. There are parts of Zeria that are warm and comforting, making you feel like you’ve retreated to the safety and innocence of infancy. In fact, the entire film has an oddly maternal feel. The gray hues that dominate the visual design can be depressing, but they can also be calming and stabilizing, like the darkness of a womb. Cleven also uses a lot of swirling, abstract visuals (kind of like paint dropped into water) throughout the movie, which have a soothing and hypnotic effect. Combined with the narrator’s deep, calming voice, these visuals draw us gently into Cleven’s enchanting world and make us remember the most comforting parts of life.
But there are also plenty of disturbing moments in Zeria. The narrator’s story covers every negative emotion from fear to disgust, detailing a number of horrific encounters with the adults in his life who he should have been able to trust. There’s also plenty of loneliness and heartache, which are accented by a beautiful and emotive score. Each time that the narrator describes one of the more disturbing events from his life, Cleven seamlessly changes the tone by darkening the gray hues and adding some reds to the screen. He also lets his cinematic freak flag fly with some nightmarish images that recall the disturbing visuals in Eraserhead (1977). It’s odd to watch a movie that keeps going back and forth between comforting and disgusting, but as Cleven understands, that’s how life works. Throughout each strange and unusual twist, the overall style of the film never alters. Cleven is able to successfully convey a full range of human emotions and life experiences without compromising the overall look of the movie. Despite the range of subjects that the story covers, Zeria is cohesive from start to finish.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."