This excellent Iranian chiller does for jam jars what James Wan‘s The Invisible Man did for negative space. It takes an object or location of absolute mundanity, and twists it into something that potentially holds all manner of horrors. Debut director Arsalan Amiri creates a heightened mood of sustained tension with hardly a visual effect in sight, moulded through stellar performances and a subtly oppressive directing style that communicates constant paranoia even in its most absurd moments.
Zalava is a village in Iranian Kurdistan inhabited by an increasingly inbred and deranged community that settled there a century before. They firmly believe that they are constantly under attack from demons, and their methods of protection involve exorcism and bloodletting. When tragedy occurs after Massoud (Navid Pourfaraj), the staunchly rational sergeant in charge of law in the area, confiscates the villagers’ guns, they call in shaman Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam). The self-professed exorcist claims to have captured the demon in a jam jar. Massoud is unimpressed and promptly arrests Amardan with the intention of proving him a fraud. This sets in motion a battle of wills between the two men, and with it a battle between superstition and reason.
It’s no accident that Amiri sets his twitchy brew of crime thriller and folk tale in 1978, right on the cusp of the Islamic Revolution. This adds international context to the very localised conflict taking place in his village, as superstition brings with it the threat of collective mania and mob justice. And what a location this village is. A genuinely beautiful lattice of wooden houses mounted on various levels into the Kurdish hillside, but populated by as motley a collection of souls as recently seen on screen (one suspects Amiri is an admirer of Fellini and his carnivalesque fondness for the human grotesque). In unusual but hugely effective character design, the villagers are literally marked out by extensive patches of skin discoloration and bleached sections of hair, which seem to spread with age.
Into this febrile environment come Massoud and Amardan like duelling existential gunslingers. Pourfaraj’s Massoud is a rigid example of authority; straight-backed and bristling of moustache. Rahimi Sam’ Amardan is more slippery, dramatic, and shifty. This is likely down to the practiced wariness of the habitual grifter, but it may just be the case that he’s some genuine terrors. And it’s in this tremor of ambiguity that Amiri’s craft comes to the fore, even though our sympathies are firmly locked, aligned with Massoud throughout. Of course these people have succumbed to ingrained local hysteria, exacerbated by inbreeding and mythologisation. Of course Amardan is nothing more than a charlatan. Isn’t he? Yet that doesn’t detract one iota from the masterful scene in which Massoud ponders opening the jar. He knows he’s correct and nothing is in there. And yet. It’s a perfect distillation of what this film does so well. It understands the primordial twinge that plucks at the most rational mind; the monster under the bed, the thing lurking in the shadows, the human capacity for storytelling and legend-building.
Less successful is a subplot involving an attractive female doctor Maliheh (Hoda Zeinolabedin) working with the villagers who clearly has a past with Massoud and becomes something of a confidante, a sounding-board to give us a peak past his armour-plated stoicism. She’s finely played by the striking Zeinolabedin, yet exists to add a slightly artificial emotional stake to Massoud and Amardan’s existential high noon. Zalava is finely poised enough on its central tension without any romantic complication. It’s necessary to get some insight into Massoud, but this could have easily been achieved through a conversation with his nervy comic-relief aide (Baset Rezaei).
Otherwise, Zalava is a coiled spring of a movie with a subterranean whiff of dark humour that is almost as ephemeral as the central Schrödinger’s demon itself. It’s a film that is alive to its more absurd elements without any detriment to its fraught atmosphere. That it is so successful in its aims with the most basic elements suggests a filmmaker of no little brilliance.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022