TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Arsalan Amiri’s debut feature, Zalava, has been doing the rounds at the most prestigious film festivals worldwide, winning the Grand Prize of the Critics’ Week at Venice. The movie explores the ancient conflict between reason and faith through the story of a tiny Iranian village whose inhabitants fervently believe in the existence of demons. Guilty of playing within the rigid frameworks of the horror genre, Amiri has almost nothing new to offer, but what’s there is undeniably crafted with great expertise.
Set in a pre-revolution Iran during 1978, the production’s greatest achievement is its construction of a cinematic atmosphere that is rife with overwhelming anxiety. Starring Navid Pourfaraj as a stubborn sergeant named Masoud who refuses to play along with the superstitions of the Kurdish villagers. The narrative chronicles the harrowing events that take place after Masoud arrests an exorcist (Pouria Rahimi Sam) despite the frenzied protests of the residents. The filmmaker perfectly contextualises a climate of fear and hatred within the scenery of a vast and arid wasteland which proves to be an appropriate launchpad for the thematic explorations.
“…the ancient conflict between reason and faith through the story of a tiny Iranian village…”
Mohammad Rasouli’s mesmerising cinematography keeps the audience completely engaged throughout Zalava, transporting them to the tiny, isolated village where people are regularly mutilated in order to ward off evil spirits. Some elements almost work but are too formulaic, especially the overused symbolism of cats and the extremely familiar sound design that one can exclusively find in horror movies. However, these are only secondary to the ideological examinations of the machinations of prejudice and religious dogmatism. Amiri excels at translating these dense and complex topics to the visual medium, facilitating a cinematic experience that is designed to be more entertaining than thought-provoking.
The MacGuffin is an empty pickle jar that allegedly contains a demon, according to the exorcist. This tiny jar results in injuries, murder, and catastrophe, functioning as a symbolic can of worms. It is also the distillation of all human prejudices, a revelatory nothing that has the power to destroy everything in sight. Amiri uses these metaphors to amplify the disconnect between pragmatism and religion, letting the audience decide whether the characters get nosebleeds due to demons or increased adrenaline. Throughout, this effective ambiguity operates with one glaring exception. Amiri insists that there are villagers who are possessed but not by demons. Instead, they are under the frightening spell of ancient ignorance, which leads them to hurt others irreversibly.
Due to the importance of the questions that Zalava asks about cultural relativism, collective illusions, and scientific reason, it has the potential to be a worthy successor to the socio-cultural investigations of artists like Ibsen. But, unfortunately, it loses the power of its vision as well as its momentum because of extended melodramatic indulgences that contribute nothing. Although most of the film was largely forgettable, that one scene where the sergeant tries to get it on with the beautiful village doctor (Hoda Zeinolabedin) during an actual demon hunt while casually marking urine samples will permanently be imprinted in my brain as an example of purely unintentional comedic gold.
Zalava screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…perfectly contextualises a climate of fear and hatred within the scenery of a vast and arid wasteland..."