Set in 1978, in a Kurdish village high in the mountains, Iranian horror entry “Zalava” pits rational, scientific beliefs against superstition and groupthink, a theme that carries a lot of resonance just now. At the same time, it sports a sly sense of humor before edging into tragedy. Marking a confident, cinema-literate feature debut for helmer and co-writer Arsalan Amiri, a member of the Iranian Kurdish minority, the film puts a new spin on genre conventions. But perhaps its biggest asset is the performance of tall, toned and impressively mustached star Navid Pourfaraj as the sergeant of a nearby gendarmerie, whose attempts to lay down the law with the trigger-happy residents of Zalava result in unintended consequences. Nabbing the Venice FIPRESCI nod should raise the profile of this offbeat title.
The first half of the film uses title cards and dialogue for exposition, some details of which are never further developed. Most pertinently, we learn that Zalava was founded a century ago by a band of Gypsies traveling from east to west. Now, the inhabitants are a credulous, inbred bunch, prone to mottled skin, patches of white hair and walking in their sleep.
According to attractive government doctor Maliheh (Hoda Zeinolabedin), who is collecting blood samples in the region, the Zalavians also boast peculiarly high levels of adrenaline. Their excitable state comes from a fear of demons and other irrational superstitions. But it is their dangerous method of dealing with those that they believe are possessed — a shooting or knifing in the leg — that leads to a clash with Sergeant Massoud (Pourfaraj).
When the pretty young daughter of the village chief is declared possessed, the levelheaded sergeant tries to preempt any blood-letting by confiscating all the guns in the village, telling her father, “Being possessed is better than having you mutilate her.” But this action inadvertently contributes to tragedy. So, too, does the sergeant’s plan to disable all the rifles before returning them.
As the Zalavians scramble in fear of additional invisible demons, the sergeant and the doctor watch skeptically as Amardan (theater and film actor Pouria Rahimi Sam), an itinerant exorcist, makes a show of capturing something unseen in a glass jar. Amiri and co-scribes Ida Panahandeh and Tahmineh Bahram write a nifty first showdown between the sergeant and exorcist that becomes several rounds of clever one-upmanship with masculine pride and credibility at stake.
The sergeant comes out on top, ordering the arrest and detention of Amardan, which inflames discontent among the locals. Back at the station, the camerawork plays knowingly with horror tropes to create a threat out of that seemingly empty glass jar, proclaimed as extremely dangerous by the exorcist. Even the sergeant, whose difficult past spurs his hatred of superstition, starts to have some doubts.
The scripters continue to craftily raise the stakes as Amardan escapes and the sergeant returns to Zalava by night with his aide Younes (well-played for comic effect by Baset Rezaei). There’s even an affecting dollop of romance between the sergeant and the doctor.
But Amardan (a tortured soul with his own difficult past) now has an ax to grind with the sergeant. As the crazed villagers start to threaten the doctor, the struggle between reason and madness reaches an apex.
While the film can be appreciated simply as something new in Iranian genre cinema, the allegorical content is even more fascinating. The demon could be a metaphor for COVID-19 as the battle between science and superstition still rages around the world.
Although this is a relatively low-budget film, the tech credits impress. When the sergeant drives between his garrison headquarters and Zalava, the camera’s view of the winding, mountainous roads resembles something from a Kiarostami film. Yet DP Mohammad Rasouli also knows how to build a good jump scare. Meanwhile, the cutting by Emad Khodabaksh and atmospheric score by Ramin Kousha maintain tension throughout.
For the record, during its world premiere at Iran’s Fajr Film Festival, “Zalava” nabbed kudos for best first feature, script and supporting actor for Rahimi Sam.