TIFF 2021 | Zalava (Arsalan Amiri, Iran)

By Madeleine Wall

It is easy to be certain in the daylight. For gendarmerie sergeant Masoud (Navid Pourfaraj), maintaining order in the small Kurdish village of Zalava is a balancing act between accommodating the superstitions of the villagers and the rapidly changing modern world. These beliefs are foundational to the villagers, part of their genetics, like the vitiligo that marks the majority of their faces. It’s 1978, right before the Iranian Revolution, and after a young woman in the village dies due to her “possession” by a demon, Masoud cracks down, taking away weapons and raising the ire of the locals. His own men, meanwhile, are afraid of the demon, and will hedge their bets on the charismatic local shaman, Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), over their C.O. When the village becomes besieged by more “demons,” Masoud must find a way to regain control. As the night stretches onwards, he puts himself at risk to protect the local doctor (Hoda Zeinolabedin), who herself has always compromised with the beliefs of her patients.

Director Arsalan Amiri creates tension out of ambiguity, making use of vivid details—glass jars, rabbits, nosebleeds—to suggest that there may actually be something going on here. The tension between old and new is not a particularly innovative horror-movie concept, and Zalava can be didactic with its familiar subject matter. Winding his camera through the narrow streets of this village built on a mountain, Amiri regularly gets the viewer lost, and as dawn breaks we discover, not anything supernatural, but the real costs stemming from the beliefs held by these people—a certainty that’s ultimately less illuminating than the filmmaker intends.

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