Under the Shadow, 2016.
Directed by Babak Anvari.
Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, and Arash Marandi.
As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
People have always been very keen to project their fears onto anything – animate objects, inanimate objects, and even each other. Because let’s face it, since the very beginning of times the fear has become an integral part of our lives, either generated by the tumultuous backdrop of political unrest or subconscious paranoia. That is exactly why horror films have always been so important to us as they provided a medium where we could finally visualise and spill out the supressed terror of everyday.
Some films have obviously done better than the others, as normally it is down to the filmmakers’ imagination and creativity as to what shape or form the society’s ‘demons’ will take. Some creatures/ghosts/the other do as much as kill everyone around them and it will up to an either a group of youngsters or an over-frightened but courageous housewife to save the day. Yet when someone like Babak Anvari takes the helm and decides to spin the wheel of his imagination, he re-envisions the genre and rebrands it into a horror movie that is peppered with an enthralling social commentary.
Anvari’s debut full-length feature Under The Shadow is a delicately woven product, where history, mythology and feminism intersect in the most unique of ways, as the film knows exactly how to utilize uses its creative faculties in order to drill into the socio-political contexts.
The story takes place in the war-crippled 1988 Tehran during the period most commonly referred to as The War of the Cities – or the Iran-Iraq war. The situation in the city is critical as people are constantly enveloped in fear over looming nuclear attack from Iraq and are compelled to live an uncertain future that is amplified by the newly elected post-Revolutionary government. Against such turbulent times we are introduced to Shideh, her husband Iraj and her daughter Dorsa, whose daily lives undergo huge change as Iraj – who is a doctor by profession – is being sent to the frontlines to help the army, leaving Shideh to look after the house and their daughter.
A giant air missile strikes and destroys the top part of their apartment block, forcing most of her neighbours to flee the building. Driven by extreme superstition, one of her neighbours starts claiming that the missile was cursed and released a Middle Eastern spirit Djinn, nudging Shideh to also run for her life. Refusing to leave her beloved home and choosing instead to hide in the confines of her apartment, Shideh soon discovers that what her neighbour’s words were not musings of the deranged person, and that the ghostly creature hiding underneath the floating hijab will destroy her family unless she hits back.
Similarly to its predecessors like Insidious and The Babadook, Under the Shadow is agile the in the way it deals with the manifestations of shock and dread. We are never fully facing ‘the evil’, yet its presence is palpably known, inducing shivers and trepidation during most of its course of action. The creature does not attack to its full destructible potential – it artfully plays with the characters’ psychotic state of mind, prompting their schizophrenia to reach its pinnacle so they can be easily manipulated. Dorsa is the first to fall as the victim of the Djinn’s spell – her behaviour starts getting erratic and volatile, and she almost transforms into The Exorcist-like devil-child.
Babak Anvari does not use ‘cheap’ symbolism or striking visual cues to make us ‘see’ his ghost. The film eerily and delicately creeps under our subconscious, continuously keeping us on the edges of our seats. That is one of Under the Shadow’s dark charms – the film’s atmosphere is saturated with mystery and trepidation, taking all the power away from the horror flicks that heavily rely on its gory spectacle and blood-shedding violence.
Despite all the artfully positioned silent horror, at the very core of the film there is a story of a one oppressed women, living under the military rules of post-Revolutionary government. You can easily dismiss Shideh’s predicament as one of those films’ subplots, where the filmmaker experiments and deviates from his main narrative with in order to give himself some writing credit. Yet Babak Anvari knew exactly what he was doing and Under the Shadow is as much historically instructive and illuminating as it is terrifying. Shideh was a young medical student, trying to be actively involved on the political scene of her country, but due to her past political activism, she is denied re-entry into the university and now she is trying to come to grips with the domestic life, which is quite obviously, does not gel so well with her blazing ambitions.
Shideh’s only ways of expressing her dismay with her condition is releasing her anger on her professionally established husband, refusal to wear chador at home or even outside (she gets arrested for not covering up) and imitating Jane Fonda and her work out videos. Shideh is trapped in all the restriction imposed by her family and the government, and, unfortunately, there is only so much she can do to end her plight. This way Anvari’s Djinn could equally be an allegory for the grief of terror-smitten Tehran or, similarly to The Babadook, an incarnation of one women’s woeful plight.
Babak Anvari is certainly not afraid to break boundaries with his visual skills and story-telling. Under the Shadow is the first Farsi-language film to break into the mainstream, and it is fully equipped to compete with its American and European counterparts. Under the Shadow is a unmissable delight for any horror fan who has a sweet tooth for something extra special hidden between its lines – what a great example of intelligent and engaging horror.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
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