This incredible feature debut from Iranian writer-director Arsalan Amiri is a cautionary tale about faith and fear.
Starring Navid Pourfaraj, Hoda Zeinolabedin, Pouria Rahimi Sam
Written by Arsalan Amiri, Ida Panahandeh, Tahmineh Bahram
Directed by Arsalan Amiri
With his first feature film, Arsalan Amiri delivers one of the most powerful films out of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Inspired by Amiri’s childhood experiences, Zalava works as a kind of catharsis for the director who grew up influenced by two sides of his Sunni and Shiite families. One grandfather was a deeply religious man and the other was more grounded in real world materialism. Those two warring factions are personified in Zalava by a frightened group of townspeople and a man of law trying to keep the peace. Talk of demons and evil forces penetrate the delicate balance struck among the people and finally give way to fear and deception.
Beginning with a supposed demonic possession, a woman tragically falls to her death in the small village of Zalava. Believing the spirit to now be untethered, a local traveling exorcist attempts to trap the demon in an ordinary glass jar, protecting the people and gaining their trust. A skeptical gendarmerie sergeant named Massoud (Pourfaraj) arrests the exorcist on charges of fraud, eventually causing the villagers to suspect that Massoud and a beautiful young doctor (Zeinolabedin) may be possessed as well.
Set in 1978 just before the Iranian revolution, Zalava shows a different kind of revolt against logic and order in favor of religious zealotry. Once it’s revealed that this exorcist turned savior might actually be a charlatan hustler, the local inhabitants become more and more unruly giving way to their own form of possession. It goes unspoken, but the theatrics of demon trapping provide a certain level of entertainment for them; when it’s denied, the fear of the unknown overwhelms their humanity. Their desire to believe in the demon turns into a warped sense of duty to protect a desperate town at all costs.
The effectiveness of Zalava lies in the glass jar itself. Is there really a demon trapped under its lid or not? Amiri uses the ancient concept of the Jinn (or genie) to activate the imagination of the villagers and the viewers. There are multiple times in the film where you may be convinced that something is, in fact, terrorizing the village. The heated conversations between Armardan the exorcist and Massoud the officer fan that flame to great effect. Slow close up shots of the jar coupled with Ramin Kousha’s ominous score show how the power of suggestion breathes life into ordinary objects.
As the intensity ramps up leading up to a final clash, both sides feel like they’ve lost all sense of self-control. Smartly, the drama is palpable enough that it’s never completely overtaken by the horror bubbling up below the surface. Superstition and fear lead to a sad form of opportunism where the job of an exorcist is just another way to survive, even if it means taking advantage of your own people. Zalava’s tragic ending is preventable but inevitable making it that much more powerful.
Whether there’s a demon in their midst or not, I’ll leave for you to decide. Never straying too far from its basic premise is ultimately what makes Amiri’s first feature linger. Pressure to devolve and follow a more traditional horror playbook may have been felt, but the writing is smart enough to resist the temptation. Zalava is more about the theater of horror than the horror itself.