“It’s always the exorcisms that have helped us, not the police,” a villager from Zalava reports in the film that takes its name after the town, feeling that Sergeant Masoud Ahmadi (Navid Pourfaraj) has overstepped his authority in seizing guns from the locals feeling threatened by the suspicion that a long-held curse has reared its ugly head once more when a young woman plunges to her death. Whether he’s taken their point or more likely tired of their complaints, Masoud has agreed to turn in his badge and gun, though not before he decides he can’t live in good conscience when there are cries once more that demons have attacked Zalava, holding one of the few guns left in town.
Yet in in Arsalan Amiri’s provocative debut feature, that isn’t the weapon of choice for a deeply religious community that is more inclined to take guidance from Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), who arrives at the scene before Masoud and has greater confidence from the townspeople presenting himself as an exorcist, armed with blue dust and a jar to collect the demon in. Set in 1978, the film may be an allegory for the uprising to come in the rest of Iran, but it seems eerily prescient as fear blinds many in the community to reason and authority lies more in who they would prefer to believe rather than who they should. All Amardan has as evidence is a jar that doesn’t break, with the thought being that the demon inside holds it together even if it falls to the ground, and as “Zalava” wears on, Masoud, against his better judgment, has to question why it doesn’t, his own faith shaken by that of others.
While Amiri has crafted something undeniably poignant, “Zalava” doesn’t skimp on an ‘80s action/adventure charm, complete with Masoud’s goofy, Eddie Deezen-esque second-in-command, a flirtation with the village doctor Maliheh (Hoda Zeinolabedin), and savvy narrative switch-em-ups that make the film a lot of fun. Resting on Pourfaraj’s broad shoulders, “Zalava” goes a long way on his performance alone as a stoic facade gives way to real doubts in who Masoud is serving by standing his ground, but between Amiri and co-writers Ida Panahandeh and Tahmineh Bahram’s playful screenplay and the wily camerawork of Mohammad Rasouli taking audiences into village as if it were a series of mazes where you’re not sure where the next step in putting one foot in front of the other might lead, it always proves to be one step ahead of where you think it will go. Whether or not there’s a curse in “Zalava” may be an open question, but the film itself casts a spell.
“Zalava” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival virtually on September 16th at 1 pm and 17th at 7 pm, available to Canada.