Zalava (2021)

Zalava had its UK première at Glasgow Film Festival 2022

Taking place less than a year before Iran’s 1979 Revolution and named for a small village built into a steep mountainside in rural Kurdistan, Arsalan Amiri’s feature Zalava – which he co-wrote with Tahmineh Bahramalian and Ida Panahandeh –  is a film of jars, of cats and of deep-seated superstitions. 

Villagers are convinced that a Demon which has cursed Zalava every year for more than a century is back. Sergeant Massoud Ahmadi (Navid Pourfaraj), the sceptical head of the local gendarmerie, has all their hunting rifles seized to prevent them shooting a young woman in the leg in accordance with their traditions of exorcism – but this only leads them to take up blades instead, and the terrified, retreating woman to fall backwards over a cliff to her death. The causal chain for these events is complex, but amid recriminations from the villagers, Massoud is relieved of his duty and is about to leave Zalava – and the local Doctor Haliheh (Hoda Zeionlabedin) whom he loves –  behind forever, when suddenly word comes in that the Demon is now running rampant through the village, and Massoud sees an opportunity to repair his damaged record. 

The villagers have also called in Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), a local shaman. When Amardan claims to have trapped the Demon in a jar, Massoud has him arrested, despite warnings that the exorcist’s work is not yet complete and the Demon is still very much present in this glass vessel. It is said that, if opened, this jar could – like Pandora’s Box (originally a jar) from Greek mythology – unleash pandemonium on the village. The villagers and some of the soldiers are terrified of it, while Massoud thinks it is as empty as Amardan’s performative rituals, and repeatedly flirts with opening it – although even he hesitates to do so. Amardan is particularly adamant that the cat which resides at the police station should not be allowed near the sealed jar. Not only is it a black cat – a conventional symbol of superstition – but it also recalls the feline in Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment. For so ambiguous is the film’s presentation of its own materials that the viewer, along with several of the characters, is compelled to entertain the contradictory ideas that the jar – and the cat – are simultaneously cursed and not cursed. 

Spiritual Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam) confronts sceptical Massoud Ahmadi (Navid Pourfaraj)

Zalava is beautifully shot in bright colours whose hyperrealism captures the oddness of this environment, perched midway between harsh reality and wild myth. Yet this is not a film of special effects or costumed devils – rather, its horror resides in uncertainty. “Superstitious people don’t just hurt themselves,” Massoud will tell Haliheh, “They are dangerous to everyone. Fear can destroy people.” Fear is precisely the focus here, in a film that on the one hand expertly deploys its tensions to get a physiological response from the viewer akin to the excess adrenaline found in the villagers’ blood and urine samples, while on the other exposing the absurdly muddled thinking that can contribute to blind panic and reckless action. 

Watching the villagers’ confused, self-destructive belief systems ridiculed, while simultaneously, as a genre viewer, wanting to believe (or at least to suspend disbelief), ensures that Amiri’s parochial parable leaves us, like the villagers of Zalava themselves, teetering precariously on the edge of cognitive dissonance. Amiri’s film allows both readings of events – Massoud’s rationalism and Amardi’s spiritualism (or is it merely showmanship?) – while also letting the complications of local politics (a nearby dam construction, a land grab, smuggling operations) further muddy its hermeneutic waters. In the end, everyone suffers, but in this small-minded patriarchal village – a microcosm of Iran – it is women who must unwillingly endure the greatest sacrifices in order for the community’s questionable values to be maintained.  

strap: Arsalan Amiri’s seriocomic saga of small-town superstition and scepticism shows different kinds of devil undoing a Kurdistan village

© Anton Bitel