Under the ShadowReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/07/16 13:39:09
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2016 AND THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The easiest way to describe "Under the Shadow" - "it's like 'The Babadook', except with everything that comes from taking place in 1980s Iran on top of it" - may make it sound derivative or excessively foreign to some ears, although I would think it would perk others up. If the idea of a smart, scary movie set in that time and place intrigues you, then the odds are that the actual film itself won't disappoint; it's a terrific combination of universal fears and specific circumstances.It revolves around Shideh (Narges Rashidi); her politics at the time led to her having to leave medical school when the Shah was deposed, eventually marrying classmate Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and having a daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). She still wishes to finish and follow in her mother's footsteps, but has just been told in no uncertain terms that this will not happen. With Tehran starting to be targeted by Iraqi rockets, Iraj is called into service and sent to a field hospital, and though he wants Shideh and Dorsa to ride things out at his parents', it's an unappealing prospect to Shideh, and one of the other children in the apartment building scaring Dorsa with claims that a djinn is haunting the place is certainly not going to lead her to budge.
A horror movie's first job is to be scary, and writer/director Babak Anvari certainly manages on that count. There are a lot of good jump scares after the audience has been primed to find things unnerving by things obviously but inexplicably out of place, a little girl who is alternately frightened of whatever new force is at play and ready to trust it over her own mother, and lighting which offers no warmth. The scares are goosed by the soundtrack on occasion, but it's hard to become inured to them, in part because Anvari doesn't have to go straight to the djinn in order to get the audience to tense up - a missile can certainly be as destructive as any monster, especially without disbelief as a shield, and the threat of the country's zealous morality police catching a woman on the street without the proper head covering can be just as frightening on a more intimate level. With all of that to choose from, and reinforcing each other, no element becomes old hat.
It's the reinforcement that makes Under the Shadow a great film - the best horror movies make all of their dangers a different angle on a core idea, and here we see Shideh confronted by the future she imagined for herself being ripped away and rolled back. Nobody in the modern city of Tehran would have seriously considered the djinn as a real thing ten years ago, but it's what the fundamentalists have made of her country, while the war reduces it to rubble, also making cracks in the windows and sanctity of her apartment, where she can dress in western clothes and work out to the Jane Fonda tape on the VCR she's not supposed to have. Even a missile strike becomes an attack on her identity, making her question her ability to be a doctor. Perhaps our most memorable glimpse at the protean djinn has it taking the form of an empty chador, as threatening to Shideh as anything else.
All that would be excellent if Shideh was a simple heroine, but Anvari gives Narges Rashidi an interesting character to play. As much as it's easy to see how she was wronged, there's no escaping that much of the bad news comes from her own hubris, just refusing to leave her sanctuary or admit that someone else might be right. Rashidi plays Shideh as if frustration has been completely internalized; there's not a word or even motion on her part that doesn't seem to be filtered through that. It can be a fine line to walk - the scenes with Dorsa are often right on the border of a mother dealing with a difficult child and a woman disturbingly resentful of her daughter - but Rashidi also uses it to make Shideh a great horror heroine, keeping a chip on her shoulder even as she's being terrified by what's going on.
Rashidi is part of a good ensemble, too - not only does Avin Manshadi make a great debut as exactly the sort of kid you'd expect to emerge from this unhappy home, but Soussan Farrokhnia perks up any scene she's in as an older woman who seems to deal with her situation with more equanimity than Shideh. Anvari and crew make the most of their environment, too - the building deteriorates in general, and Shideh's apartment almost seems to rot, especially in comparison to that of the landlord, gilded and pointedly elegant but just tasteful enough to make accusing the condescending woman there of vanity tacky."Under the Shadow" is meticulously constructed, right down to the way it manages to look the opposite of ostentatious. And, yes, it's scary to boot, all the more so because even if Shideh's fears are not the viewer's, Anvari immerses the audience so thoroughly that it soon feels like they are. It's one of the year's best, an interesting dive into a Persian woman's head even if you're not usually into the scary stuff.
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