A familiar short-film but really engaging in its observational tone, sound, and connection to a cinematic sci-fi pedigree
It is hard to describe this film in terms of plot in a way that will make anyone interested in seeing it. Essentially a domestic-help robot starts to expand itself beyond the base task-focused programming. In many ways the general stroke of the film is nothing you haven't seen before, and to be fair, the overall arc of the story is not one that will provide shocks. It also doesn't help that the film is mostly very slow-paced, free of dialogue and action, and runs to about 20 minutes (which is long for a short film). However despite this I have watched the film 3 times now and been held by it each and every time.
For me I think it is the calibre of the film that makes it engaging, holding my attention and encouraging a much more observational type of viewing, where the lack of big moments or action doesn't really matter so much. The calibre is not just the production of this work, but also the work from which it seems to be drawn. For many short films with similar narratives to this, you do get the feeling that the maker has seen Wall-E, and maybe ironically watched Short Circuit 2, but beyond that doesn't have reference points they are working from. In the case of Zari, it feels steeped in cinema in a way so few short films manage. I don't mean that it has in-jokes or references lying around some shots, but more that it captures a sense of a type of sci-fi. In particular the film has that technological coldness of 2001, but it also has shades of Demon Seed, and other works in there too. This means the film has wide shots of the rooms, with simple movements within them, allowing the viewer to feel like we're observing, rather than really directly connected to the situation. It creates a coldness in some ways, but I found this surprisingly engaging and in drawing me in, I was surprised by how affecting the delicate touches were – all the more so for not being manipulative or for pushing sentiment.
The design of Zari is nicely in that vein; it is not child-friendly or filled with visual character (it does look like a mobile dustbin) but this helps the tone of the film and I did really respond to how it manages to deliver an emotive narrative but do so within the context of a very 1970's feeling film. The sound design is a bit part of the tone of the film. On a bed of a steady electrical hum, the focus on functional noises (without a constant soundtrack) creates this same colder landscape which matches the visuals and the direction of the film as a whole. It sounds simple but it comes together in a very satisfying manner. The result is a film that not only feels like it is working from sci-fi reference points, but at the same time is able to be in control of what it is trying to do in and of itself.
It is a very slow paced film, and those looking to grab a short video on their phone as they get the bus home will not find it a great fit, but it is a cinematic experience in the short-form, and I was really taken by how well it delivers in the story-telling, the visual design, aurally, and in the control and consistency of tone.
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