While investigating a town with a shared belief in demonic possession, military sergeant Massoud’s (Navid Pourfaraj) beliefs are challenged by the zealous exorcist, Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam).

Demonic possession films are fairly commonplace in the world of horror and thrillers. Many of them as derivative as the next. More often than not, this type of film asks fairly shallow questions in service of a good thrill and an elevated heart rate. Naturally, this doesn’t apply to all possession-type films and Zalava is one such film.

The film’s greatest strength lies directly in its overarching question – are demons real? A tad hypocritical, I know. But what director Arsalan Amiri and team has crafted that sets Zalava apart from all of the rest is that they root their story firmly in reality and make you truly question whether or not demons are real.

Amiri is able to accomplish this in a number of ways. Firstly, the relationship between our lead Massoud and the exorcist Amardan is the true crux to the film’s thesis. On one hand, you have Massoud, a military sergeant whose job it is to protect the country from threats. Thinking critically and as unclouded as possible is his job. On the other, Amardan wants only to support the village he views as family in their times of need. Their very character traits are meant to contrast one another so when they do converge, they are forced to question the very realities they’ve constructed for themselves. Both actors bring their all to these roles and without that charisma and determination, the end result would not have been as provocative as it was.

Secondly, the very existence of Hoda Zeinolabedin‘s doctor, Maliheh adds a foil to both men. She is a woman of science and wants so badly to convince the villagers that there is no evil in the village. However, there is still a small part of her that believes, like all of the others, that there is always the possibility that demons are real. Because of her neutrality, she ultimately becomes a stand-in for the viewer. Not truly believing in either side without firm evidence.

Lastly, the technical makeup of this film helps deliver home its believability. From the dynamic cinematography to the natural and interesting script, the filmmakers knew the story they wanted to tell, and told it well. The acting was also extremely believable, with notable standouts by Massoud’s military right-hand man, Younes, to the town as a whole. Without their charismatic roles, I believe Massoud’s journey into discovery the truth would not have been as impactful.

Zalava is not like all of the rest. Supported by superb writing, directing, cinematography, and acting, this film has set itself apart from other demonic possession films. No matter what side of the fence you stand on when it comes to demonic possession, Zalava will make you question that belief, and possibly hold open the fence door to help you cross to the other side.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Reviewed on September 13, 2021 at Toronto International Film Festival. Rating: TBC. Running time: 93 min.

PRODUCTION: A LevelK distribution of a Touba Films production. Producers: Samira Baradari and Rouhollah Baradari.

CREW: Director: Arsalan Amiri. Writers: Arsalan Amiri, Tahmineh Bahramalian, and Ida Panahandeh. Editing: Emad Khodabaksh. Music: Ramin Kousha. Cinematography: Mohammad Rasouli.

CAST: Navid Pourfaraj, Pouria Rahimi Sam, Hoda Zeinolabedin, Baset Rezaei, Shaho Rostami, Fereydoun Hamedi, Zahed Zandi, and Saleh Rahimi

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