Film reviews and more since 2009

Under the Shadow (2016) review

Dir. Babak Anvari

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

(A belated) part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.

Set in 1988 Tehran, Babek Anvari’s Under the Shadow can be seen as a metaphor for the increasing threat of war, the encroaching presence of djinn amongst us, or, on the surface, a very smart, sly horror film made effective by two compelling lead performances.

Under the Shadow drops us into a cramped, drab apartment, which exists in an unsafe area just as the “War of the Cities” phase of the seemingly unending Iran-Iraq War occurs. Inside one of the many apartments are mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who are holed up and under the threat of missile attacks. They’re two of desperately few people left in the complex, much less the city, and Shideh’s absent husband implores over the phone that they go stay with his parents (he is a medic, stationed in the thick of battle).

Shideh refuses, and instead tapes X’s on her windows and attempts to protect Dorsa by shuffling her into the basement during air raids. The only scene in which Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is present is right before he leaves on assignment. In the only interaction we see between them, we can tell there’s been a lot of tension bubbling under the surface for sometime. Shideh was once a medical student herself, but was expelled due to her political protests during the Revolution. Her options are limited as she’s now relegated to a stay-at-home mother, taking care of a daughter she doesn’t seem to like very much.

Eventually, something appears to be wrong with Dorsa, who tells her mother that djinn are lurking. She heard it from a neighbor boy, whose mother tells Shideh that the boy has been mute for sometime now. Shideh tells Dorsa that there are no such thing as djinn. Then, Dorsa’s beloved doll disappears. Then mom’s workout tape ends up in the trash. One of Shideh’s medical textbooks inexplicably finds itself out of a locked cabinet and into another apartment. Dorsa soon comes down with a crippling fever, one that might not go away until she is reunited with her doll. At least that’s what the djinn tell her.

Anvari and cinematographer Kit Fraser make Shideh and Dorsa’s apartment an entrapping location. Thin walls make neighbors’ conversations ever-so-modestly audible. They’re flimsy enough to allow for the wind to be heard. Prolific, ambient noise is a hallmark of Under the Shadow, be it the choppy static of a radio playing Farsi-language speeches or booming music from local protests permeating the air. The constant noise makes the infrequent silences that much more disconcerting, especially as Anvari slowly shifts the film’s perspective from our own voyeuristic look inside this apartment to one more in-line with the deteriorating psyches of Shideh and Dorsa.

It takes time for the shift to register, but certain inclusions serve as giveaways, such as cracks in the ceiling changing in size. As Dorsa becomes sicker and increasingly hostile towards her mother, tensions between the two begin to rise. Shideh isn’t the most likable nor empathetic mother on the planet, and Narges Rashidi’s performance accentuates that with her hostile eyes and barked orders towards her daughter. Avin Manshadi responds with scowls and glares, with both women executing Anvari’s premise and dialog like astute veterans.

Under the Shadow‘s slowburn pace can result in fluctuating interest. No less, at a concise 84-minutes, this lean thriller maintains a frightful edge and serves as an unshakeable metaphor for the threat of lingering war.

NOTE: Under the Shadow is available to stream on Netflix.

Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, and Arash Marandi. Directed by: Babak Anvari.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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