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Simon Read [Celluloid 09.28.16] Iran horror

This feature debut from Iranian-born writer/director Babak Anvari is a remarkably accomplished and confident supernatural thriller, full of tension, fear and anxiety. The film uses the setting of 1980's Tehran, during the Iraq-Iran conflict, to examine a family in crisis, attempting to cope during Saddam’s missile bombing campaign of the city as something unearthly and sinister begins haunting their apartment.

Working on several levels and featuring excellent performances, it’s a striking, genuinely chilling piece of work, and a very easy film to recommend. While the backdrop is one of chaos, war and conflict, the underlying motifs are of guilt, anxiety and frustration, all manifest in the appearance of something more insidious than any invading army or dictator, something in the shadows which can be neither understood nor reasoned with...

A young, middle-class housewife and mother, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), lives with her husband and daughter in a quiet apartment block in Tehran. Due to involvement with the Iranian Revolution in her youth she has been refused entry into medical school despite her obvious talent, and so lives a life of quiet domesticity. Her frustration is palpable as her aloof doctor husband, Iraj, offers little support (“Perhaps it’s for the best”) and reasons that she ought to be content in looking after their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). As the city reels from increased attacks, residents of the apartment block begin to flee, staying with relatives abroad until the conflict subsides. Iraj is called away to work in Ilam, where fighting is even worse. He wants Shideh and Dorsa to move out of the city to live with his parents, but Shideh refuses, unwilling to break the illusion that she can cope on her own.

When an unexploded missile lands in the apartment above during an air-strike, a traumatized Dorsa claims that a Djinn demon has entered the building to feed on the fear of the families that remain. Shideh attempts to discourage such thoughts, but after she suffers bizarre waking nightmares and hallucinations, her innate rationality slowly erodes and she becomes convinced that something is indeed very wrong. From here the film becomes increasingly fractured and intense, as Shideh desperately attempts to understand what’s happening, while strange forces seem hell-bent on destroying her life, her family, and her sanity.

What’s most striking about Under the Shadow is how deftly it mixes elements of realism with fantasy and horror. Life for an intelligent woman in Iran during the Cultural Revolution is laid out as stifling and oppressive. Early on we see Shideh refused re-entry to university for past political affiliations, passing by checkpoints where she is scrutinised by armed guards, and criticised by her landlord for having the audacity to drive a car. Her husband is standoffish and patronising, her neighbours suspicious and cold. At one point Shideh hides one of her treasured medical textbooks in a locked drawer, afraid her husband will throw it away. Added to this, the film is punctuated by increasingly frequent missile attacks and blackouts, reminders that the city is under siege. Occasional radio and television broadcasts warn that things will only get worse. All the while, we sense the ‘Djinn’, its ubiquitous presence - ever lurking in the shadows.

As the film progresses Anvari builds tension by focusing both on the social and domestic difficulties the characters suffer through in attempting to maintain some semblance of normality in the face of frequent bomb attacks, and the steady introduction of unsettling supernatural elements. The latter begin subtly with odd events contriving to make Shideh question her religious skepticism (one neighbour helpfully points out that Djinn are often mentioned in the Quran), until finally reaching a point where she is essentially forced to admit to her daughter that there really are such things as monsters.

Rashidi’s performance, her character’s slow descent into desperation and instability, is pretty exceptional. Her character is strong-willed, feminist, far more intelligent than the people around her, but wracked by guilt, feelings of inadequacy and constant anxiety. The shadow of her own mother, who pushed her into becoming a doctor, now looms large as she struggles with motherhood and the failure to live up to expectations. Her relationship with her own daughter is strained, and we sense that the malevolent presence stalking her family is only too aware of this, taking advantage of her vulnerability.

In amongst all of this tension we’re provided some seriously spooky moments. A child’s tea party, all fun and make-believe, might be interrupted by a sudden jolt of fear. The wind whistling through cracks in recently shattered windows merges with inexplicable footsteps late at night. Reality and dreams become interchangeable, and even the daytime brings little respite as household objects become misplaced, altered or even destroyed by an unseen intruder. The simplicity of domestic life contains an atmosphere of unease; something as banal as a child’s reflection on a television screen playing a bootleg Jane Fonda workout tape or MTV video can become a catalyst for some dark evil. It’s all effective and creepy stuff, though the film occasionally undermines itself, devaluing some of this great work.

While the film basically hits the right notes, honestly feeling like something fresh and different, there is a slight over-reliance on jump-scares which, although ostensibly ‘earned’ through slow-build tension, occasionally feel cheap or convenient. Just to glimpse what may be a Djinn creeping silently through the building’s corridors contributes enough of a frisson to proceedings without necessitating a sudden burst of angry music as the camera has hysterics and something leaps into the frame from off-screen. It feels odd that a film by an Iranian director set during the 1980s would ape current Hollywood conventions, but then it’s understandable I suppose, given the need to compete in the current market. So, while Under the Shadow feels as though it could have been something genuinely unusual, a horror film based on suggestion, paranoia and personalities, it settles for a more straightforward approach, albeit an altogether superior and successful one.

Here is a horror film that confronts the nightmare of living under an oppressive theocracy in a time of war, of facing severe prejudice while also facing up to guilt and perceived personal failures, the pressures of raising a child in an unsafe environment, the distance that grows between spouse, mother and child when the horrors of war permeate each aspect of daily life – and the madness, the emotional strain which occurs as a result.

If all this sounds a bit heavy though, keep in mind that the film can simply be enjoyed as a good old-fashioned haunting. It’s scary, and it stays with you.

Under the Shadow will be release on October 7, 2016.

Recommended Release: The Devil's Backbone

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