It should be hard not to like a movie where one of the first lines of dialogue is “My sheep are possessed!” So it’s a shame that the allegorical panic film Zalava, The directorial debut of the Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Arsalan Amiri turns out to be so boring and numbing even after just 93 minutes.
The film takes place in 1978 on the threshold of the culture-changing Iranian revolution and follows a gendarmerie sergeant named Masoud (Navid Pourfaraj), who in his last days monitors the superstitious inhabitants of the village of the same name. Masoud has the penetrating gaze of a born skeptic; X-Files’ Dana Scully would think he was a bit much. And he has no time for the supposedly demonic gimmicks that have plagued Zalava for generations.
The bottom line
In the opening scene, these extraterrestrial machinations lead to a young woman falling to her death. The villagers insist that she was possessed. Masoud thinks differently. And while he’s ready to get it out of this remote region, he can’t help but watch this never-ending freak show for him.
The main attraction of the moment is a shaman, Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), who has promised to permanently cast out the devil who is responsible for Zalava’s problems. After an ominous performance in front of the hysterical villagers, in which he exaggerates them with warnings to shoot him if the ritual does not go as planned, Amardan emerges from the dark confines of a house with a glass jar in his hand. He insists that this is where the demon is forever trapped. Unless someone lets him out. (That will never happen!)
Of course there is nothing to be seen in the can. The Zalavians’ fantasies and Masoud’s own unbelief run wild – opposing perspectives, all of which lead inexorably to ruin. In the center is a government doctor, Maliheh (Hoda Zeinolabedin), who collects blood samples from villagers who have elevated adrenaline levels. (Many of them also have speckled skin, which they see as a sign that something evil is at work.) Masoud is also cute with Maliheh, who stages a tragic, climatic confrontation that, if not shaken of his doubts, certainly does pulverized his mind.
Many films have made the imperceptible terrifying. But that’s definitely not the case here. There’s a chillingly overwrought quality too Zalavaas if Amiri and his co-workers are forcing fear instead of letting it arise more naturally. Locating the story before the revolution does little to add thematic weight to the process (it’s just metaphorical window dressing). And Amiris announced in press releases that he intended to use a genre piece to portray the memories of his own upbringing as an Iranian-Kurdish minority, which unfortunately turns out to be admirable in its conception and feather-light execution.
Much of the heavy lifting in Zalava is made by Ramin Kousha’s haunting score, which is wall to wall presumptuous, furthest from arousing fear. And while cameraman Mohammad Rasouli captures some pretty pictures – some Kiarostami-like long shots of cars driving on winding mountain roads, or the shadowy suggestion of certain nocturnal sequences – their individual atmosphere adds up to nothing that consistently gets under your skin.