[Overlook Film Festival Review] ZALAVA
Courtesy Overlook Film Festival
1978 Iran before the revolution…

A century ago a band of gypsies traveling from east to west settled in Zalava and became acquainted with the customs and rituals of the people of the region. But a powerful fear has stayed with them over the years.

Set in Iran, director and writer Arsalan Amiri brings a dramatic and gripping story (with a bit of comedy) as he shows how rituals and logic compete to bring peace to a small community. Over the last decade, Iranian filmmakers have been providing excellent entries to film fests dedicated to the horror genre, and ZALAVA takes an interesting approach to the concept of the fear of the unknown and unexplainable. For those of you confused (and frustrated) with the ridiculous war on science, the film ZALAVA will settle well with you.

On the cusp of the Iranian revolution, Amiri’s film looks at the struggles that arise when religious faith and science rationality collide with each other. Taking place in a small village in Kurdistan, the audience becomes inundated with the mass hysteria of a scared group of people and all the chaos and fear associated with the inexplicable. The townsfolk believe a demon lives among them, so they hire a well-known exorcist Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam) to capture the disruptive spirit in a jar. Now the future of the town relies on the safety of a precarious glass container. However, the story takes place in a mountainous setting with steep stone steps everywhere, which makes for a beautiful landscape, but dangerous for the jar.

Serving as the rival to the exorcist, Sergeant Masoud Ahmadi (Navid Pourfaraj) arrives to prove the supposed spiritualist is nothing but a conman and everything can be explained with logic and science. The Sergeant plays a by-the-book kind of guy and claims his Vulcan-like approach to human interactions stems from his life in an orphanage and not being hugged enough as a child. Not sure if I buy the reasoning, but Pourfaraj absolutely nails the role with his stoic and unmovable face (yet still somehow shows so much expression). Even when love interest Malihe (Hoda Zeinolabedin) shows up to prove science and faith can actually coexist, Masoud remains dedicated to his pragmatic approach to life. And as Masoud tries to prove Amardan is faking it, several questions start circling through the mind of the Sergeant and the audience: Is there really a demon? Does performing the exorcism hurt anyone? Or does letting the townspeople believe in the ritual lead to an abuse of power? But also, if enough people believe in something for long enough, does it become true?

The pace of the film might come off as a bit slow for some, but the director’s control of tension will keep most people interested in the mystery. Some of the scenes combine dread and humor so well, that either laughs or feelings of fear would be acceptable responses. The atmosphere and tense reveals continue to keep the outcome of the narrative ambiguous, so you will continually question the motives of the characters and the contents of the jar. Not to give too much away, but the third act raises the intensity and challenges the typical demonic possession narratives.

Showing superstitions and regional rituals, ZALAVA places a romantic story in an eerie atmosphere and shows how when gaps in understanding appear, the dangers of imagination take over. Many will argue the film actually lacks the qualities to be labeled a ‘horror’ film, but with a heavy dose of paranoia, dark humor, and a surprising ending, this film will place Amiri firmly in the horror genre.

ZALAVA played as a part of this year’s Overlook Film Festival.

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