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Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review – Zalava

Zalava, 2021.

Co-written and directed by Arsalan Amiri.
Starring Navid Pourfaraj, Pouria Rahimi Sam, Hoda Zeinolabedin, Baset Rezaei, Fereydoun Hamedi, and Shaho Rostami.

SYNOPSIS:

Investigating reports of demonic possessions in a remote village, a skeptical military officer finds his beliefs tested by an enigmatic exorcist.

Exorcism movies are a dime-a-dozen, and so this new riff from Arsalan Amiri (Villa Dwellers) is a very welcome rebuke, venturing far away from their typical setting and tone for a disarmingly bizarre, thoroughly gripping horror-drama.

Set in the titular remote Iranian village – in 1978, on the eve of the Iranian Revolution – Zalava follows the efforts of Gendarmerie sergeant Masoud (Navid Pourfaraj) to investigate reports of a demonic presence terrorising the residents, seemingly turning their hair white and giving their skin vitiligo-like blotches.

In their fear, the locals have resorted to a peculiar blood-letting ritual in which they shoot those suspected of demonic possession in the leg, apparently allowing the presence to escape through the wound. However, since being posted there, the highly skeptical Masoud has ordered the citizens to turn in their guns in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed, which ironically ends up having fatal consequences for a member of the community.

With the villagers fast turning on Masoud and seeking resolution through a shaman, Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), who claims he can rid the demon once and for all, Masoud is forced to consider whether to indulge Amardan in the hope of quelling a populace increasingly prone to dangerous hysteria.

From his very first scene, Amiri does a remarkable job of keeping the drama teetering on an uneasy razor’s edge, forcing audiences to consider whether the story will remain entirely grounded or slide progressively into outright supernatural hooey. Either outcome is kept totally plausible for basically the entire runtime, and regardless of how it ends up, Amiri is to be commended for slow-building a unique brand of suspense.

Numerous alternate possibilities to the demon are posited throughout; perhaps some nearby settlers started the rumour of a demon so they could buy the land cheap; the villagers themselves did it to try and keep the police from snooping on their illegal activities; or it’s all an elaborate fraud cooked up by the shaman himself.

This dichotomy of doubt and belief drives the film’s narrative forward, dovetailing aptly into its low-fi approach to possibly-supernatural happenings. This is visualised by an empty glass pickle jar within which the shaman claims the demon has been temporarily captured; the terrified regard with which the villagers hold the item, with enough conviction to give even Masoud time for pause, elucidates the destructive power of fear, whether justified or not.

While on paper the spine beats of the story might seem familiar, they’re rendered unique by filtering down through such an unconventional setting and undeniable cultural specificity. Is it all an allegory for the sweeping changes brought about by the Iranian Revolution? A commentary on gun control? You’re free to speculate because Amiri doesn’t dare lay it on thickly at all, using the context as a metaphorical litmus test for audiences, perhaps.

Though thickly atmospheric, it’s also an unexpectedly fun movie, indulging just enough in genre elements – such as the presence of some very creepy rabbits – and a few neat screw-turning twists. Most surprising of all is the abundance of dark humour throughout; Masoud memorably attests that the only thing more dangerous than the villagers’ guns is “the shit in their brains,” while there are discussions of “demon pee” poisoning the nearby dam, and amusing fake-out horror-show moments intended to keep viewers on edge.

There are also some shockingly funny laughs during otherwise bleak scenes, and though it very nearly tips over into farce when presenting the contradictory, hysterical values of the terrified villagers, it thankfully never quite goes that far.

There’s a lot to be said here for Navid Pourfaraj’s strong central performance, serving as a keen tonal ballast, his po-faced, deadpan turn helping keep the pic on an even keel. Pourfaraj is especially mesmeric when detailing Masoud’s harrowing backstory, but carries the film on his shoulders at all times – not to ignore the solid efforts of the entire ensemble.

Amiri’s film has a smooth formal control from start to finish which ensures it feels more patient and composed compared to many similarly-themed efforts from Hollywood. If the tone and style approximate any recent movie, it’s surely The Wailing, between its quiet patience, rising drum-driven score, and deceptively serene natural scenery (evocatively shot by Mohammad Rasouli).

While it’s not exactly saying anything new about mob mentality, and its predictably ambiguous ending may frustrate some, the story’s singular tragi-comedic trajectory should make it an experience not easily forgotten.

Zalava’s paranoia-soaked atmosphere bolsters a novel, at times surprisingly funny take on the typical exorcism flick.