Superstition, demons and mob mentality come into play in wicked fashion in Zalava, the feature debut from director and co-writer Arsalan Amiri.
Set in 1978, Iran, the inhabitants of the eponymous, isolated mountain town are convinced that a demon has come into their midst. They seek the aid of a renowned exorcist (Pouria Rahimi Sam) to rid them of the evil, while a young and levelheaded sergeant (Navid Pourfaraj) is sent to investigate the situation. The exorcist, to the cheers of the townsfolk, claims to have trapped the demon inside a glass jar, but the sergeant isn’t convinced. However, after arresting the exorcist for fraud, doubt and paranoia begin to creep into his mind.
A feature that’s dripping in atmosphere and a devilishly dark sense of humour, Amiri demonstrates just how contagious superstition and mob mentality can be. Once the jar (that may or may not contain a demon) comes into play, the director has set the stage for slow-burn tension to gradually take hold. What starts as wary words of caution towards the artefact soon escalate into a volatile and dangerous situation with a splash of absurdist humour thrown in for good measure. While there are plenty of comic moments scattered throughout, their dark edge seamlessly blends with the horror elements, enhancing the tension more than satirising it. Likewise, committed performances from Pourfaraj and the supporting cast keep the drama firmly grounded, even when things get wild.
With a phenomenal premise as masterfully executed as this, it is comes as a disappointment that the filmmaker doesn’t go further with his ideas. For one, not much is known about the townsfolk or their beliefs outside of some brief onscreen text during the opening scene. Likewise, none of the horror aspects of the script are genuinely suspenseful or frightening. Had both these avenues been explored, viewers would have a reason to fear the jar and believe the townsfolk could be more than overzealous in what they believe.
A bold cinematic debut, Zalava has a lot of fantastic ideas that don’t go quite far enough to make the most out of its ingeniously simply premise.