Overlook Film Festival Review – Zalava (2021)

Iran is on the brink of a revolution and the tiny village of Zalava in Kurdistan is besieged by what is perceived by the “gypsy” townfolk as a demonic manifestation. Local law enforcement intervenes in the form of super cynical Sargeant Masoud.

However, confiscating rifles is not enough as the villagers are whipped into a frenzy of paranormal paranoia and Masoud must lock horns with the enigmatic exorcist Amarden.

The product of Suni and Shiite parents, director Arsalan Amiri is somewhat of a hybrid and so is his well-crafted and reflective debut picture. Seeking to blend genre tropes with a realist ethos, he forces an uneasy symbiosis between the mordacious trappings of horror and real-world philosophical issues.

His film bastes in a folk horror atmosphere and recycles the juices into a thematically rich and subtextually layered potboiler. The movie anchors itself firmly in the minutiae of village life in 1978 Iran with immersive mise-en-scène, seductive sun-flushed cinematography, and authentically rustic pacing.

As a consequence, the possession horror mechanics serve as a genre-savvy ante for the higher stakes exploration of some succulent social commentary. Including the insidious nature of ingrained superstition, the power of delusional peer pressure, the folly of snobbish skepticism, and ultimately, the cancerous dynamic of classist division. Much like the superb Tehran set Under the Shadow, the demonic shenanigans are an engaging narrative means to a more expansive allegorical end.

That is not to say that Zalava does not succeed as a horror flick. The sense of impending catastrophe is almost as tangible as it is grounded. There are no blood-soaked set pieces, dodgy CGI spirit materialisations, or cheap orchestral stab jump scares. Amiri prefers to siphon his shocks from the stark contagion of humanised fearmongering and ancient urban myth hand-me-downs.

The townsfolk are understandably spooked. They have faces disfigured by eczema-like blotches. Prematurely whitening hair, and are testing positive for dangerously high levels of adrenaline in their piss, which is regularly conveyed for governmental analysis in a quaint wooden travel box.

They also believe that anyone suspected of being under the control of nasty spirits should be shot below the waist to allow the resulting blood spurts to flush out the evil. Consequently, many of them are maimed or indeed bereft of entire limbs.

With no clear strategy to ease their plight, they have found catharsis in gypsy folklore and given free rein to a degenerative culture of blame and persecution. It is the powerlessness our protagonists face in the wake of mass delusion that is both the core horror premise of Zalava and a wider metaphor for the annihilation of autonomy under extreme theological regimes.

 Zalava forgoes phantasmagorical pyrotechnics and draws its tension and audience manipulation from the mystification of simple everyday objects instead. Whenever blanket-obsessed wandering exorcist for hire Amarden confronts and captures a demon he imprisons it in an empty pickle jar. The idea being he stores it for later taming before it joins his army of subservient spirits that conform to his monetary bidding. A sort of preserving receptacle-based demonic Pokémon hunter if you will. 

As the events escalate one particular jar becomes the main focus of both the hysteria and jaded mistrust. Although the farcical element almost drives the narrative into Last of the Summer Exorcist territory, it is a cheeky MacGuffin that allows the filmmakers to play a creepy game of Schrödinger’s demon with both the characters and us.

Navid Pourfaraj is broodingly wholesome as Masoud, a man haunted by his failed adoption as a child due to the superstitious distrust of his extra finger. He really does want to protect the townsfolk from themselves. However, his incredulous demeanour, frosty stoicism, and overbearing authoritarianism stir up the very discontent he seeks to avoid. He is, to an extent, in a no-win situation as he sees out his final days before being replaced.

His metaphysical nemesis Amarden is played with salty shamanic smugness by the excellent Pouria Rahimi Sam. It’s a wonderfully balanced performance that clarifies the movie’s filter of ambiguity. The scenes between the pair fire up some intriguing chemistry as Amarden engages in spiritual dick-waving counterpunched by Masoud’s alpha male projection of his personal transcendental trauma.

Zalava is a film of ideas and subtlety over slam-bang theatrics. A film brave enough to channel its own agenda ahead of expectations. Geographically and culturally fresh it is a welcome addition to both the folk horror and demonology genres. Horror fans looking to expand their worldview further than franchises and prequels will find much to enjoy in this intelligent and cine-literate thought piece.

★★★★

Supernatural Folk Horror, Drama | Iran | 2021 | 93 mins | Not Yet Rated | Corinth Films | Dir. Arsalan Amiri | Cast: Navid Pourfaraj, Pouria Rahimi Sam, Hoda Zeinolabedin