Zeria, the new film from Belgian director Harry Cleven, is striking from the first image and only grows stranger and more wondrous as it continues. The film’s opening credits play over what appears to be thick liquid clouds moving through the water against a warm orange and pink backlight, announcing this movie won’t look like other movies.
When the film begins with an aerial shot of a miniature city full of tenement houses overrun by vines, that sense of something unique unfolding before our eyes only grows. However, the first image of the characters in the film is the most surprising and oddly beautiful: the characters in the movie are human actors wearing unmoving masks.
Early in the film, a voiceover message begins from the last man on Earth to the first human born on Mars, who just so happens to be grandfather and grandson. The grandson is the titular Zeria, but the film centers on the grandfather’s life as he recounts his experiences on the dying Earth.
There’s little dialogue as most speech comes from our narrator, which lends the film a fairy-tale quality. The incredibly distinct visual world Cleven and collaborators have created here enhances this otherwordly quality. Miniatures make up every large-scale exterior, and immobile masks convey powerful emotion. The world, drained of color, seems almost black and white, and some vignettes play out in pure silhouette and shadow play.
A Sense of Pain
The story, such as it is, follows our narrator’s childhood with a brief stop at his teenage years and into his adulthood. It’s an often brutal story, as we learn that his father abused him, physically and mentally.
He was forced to live with his grandparents, who “no longer knew how to love,” and later with his aunt and uncle, who may have been a pedophile. Yet this brutality doesn’t play as pure shock factor; it lends natural darkness to the story and a real sense of pain.
Beyond the painful experiences of our narrator’s young life, there are also significant intimate moments, such as a scene of three characters with their hands down each others’ pants. In addition, we see our narrator’s dreams of naked women, puppets in these sequences, tied up and asking to be touched.
The film also shows what he imagines as a young boy when his aunt describes “many men licking a woman.” Again with a puppet woman and many long puppeteered tongues that recall Freddy Krueger’s extended tongue in the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
These undeniably somewhat shocking scenes don’t push the audience out of the film, though, because everything is so otherworldly, which makes sense given that this is ultimately a science fiction film. There’s not much that fact plays for in the plot beyond the departure of humans to Mars, but it informs the whole of the film’s aesthetic.
Late in the film, when we learn about the exodus to Mars, we also learn that older people did not leave Earth. Instead, they were left behind to die as they could not contribute to the proliferation of humanity on our new home planet. It’s yet another plot point that could overwhelm the film in misery. Instead, it sets up its surprisingly moving ending, offering a note of hope and joy in the darkness of this world.
Zeria isn’t just an astounding film for its visual inventiveness. It’s a beautiful movie that seeks to look at the brutality of humanity and a crumbling world in the face while acknowledging that there is also love and hope in that same world.
This emotional note landing when there is almost no dialogue and no movement on the character’s faces speaks to the skill of Cleven and his collaborators as visual storytellers. More than a movie, Zeria feels like a visual poem and one that deserves to be heard and seen.
Zeria is currently playing the film festival circuit.
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Featured Image Courtesy of Harry Cleven & Popiul.
Kyle Logan studied philosophy and now constantly overthinks music and movies.
He’s a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Cultured Vultures, Chicago Film Scene, Castle of Chills, and Filmotomy. Kyle has covered virtual film festivals including the inaugural Nightstream festival in 2020 and the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Kyle is interested in horror films, animation, Star Wars, and Adventure Time, as well as older genre films written and directed by queer people and women, particularly those from the 1970s and 80s. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.