Overview: Under The Shadow is the story of a mother and child coping with the realities of war while being haunted by something much more sinister. Netflix; 2016; Rated PG-13; 84 minutes.
The Big Debut: This year, the Vancouver International Film Festival boasted over 300 titles, several of which are promising horror contenders timed perfectly for our month of HÆlloween. First on the list is Under The Shadow, an Iranian debut directed by Babak Anvari that follows a mother and child under the threat of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Anvari uses ghostly Arabic folklore and political issues to move the film forward, though some might initially find problems with the pacing. Under The Shadow plays out largely like a drama with horrific imagery and just a touch of well-placed jump scares.
Culture: It must be said that Farsi is a particularly beautiful language and it was exciting to hear it in this medium. Narges Rashidi gives an impeccable lead performance as strong and independent Shideh, a woman held back by circumstance and tradition. Her political exploits prevent her from finishing medical school, gender roles prevent her from the freedom she desires, and the current state of the war prevents her from stability and safety in her own home. Her character was real, well-rounded, and even inspirational in the face of fear.
There are several layers of fear being explored in Under the Shadow. A palpable tension and dread hangs over the film – the bombs can fall at any time, both in war and in Shideh’s marriage. Her husband, Iraj, is a practicing doctor who has difficulty supporting her dreams and headstrong ways. When he is drafted to perform medical services on the frontlines, Shideh is left with her daughter Dorsa in a city slowly succumbing to the inevitability of war and destruction. Despite Iraj’s pleas, Shideh is feisty and adamantly refuses to leave her home with her daughter. This decision seems foolhardy to others but comes across as fairly rational, until a live missile crashes through the roof. In the ensuing panic, Dorsa misplaces her beloved doll and safety totem, Kimia. She begins to speak vaguely about where it could have gone and who could have taken it.
Lore: Like most supernatural elements, children and the elderly tend to be able to see them before anyone else and Under The Shadow follows this lead. One of the film’s few potential flaws involves the trope of a (fairly unnecessary) creepy child, as he’s used to introduce us to what ghostly presence might really be lurking beyond the missile. It’s then that the situation becomes really interesting for Dorsa and Shideh, and for us as we look on helplessly. Let’s dig into this folklore a bit. According to the Quran, the angels, djinn, and humans are the three beings that were created by god. When anxiety and fear rule, the djinn appear. Given the situation it’s no surprise that anxieties are high and superstition runs rampant in the community. Even the mere whisper of the boy’s claims causes neighbours to reflexively pray and suck their teeth.
As one by one residents of Tehran head to greener, safer pastures, Shideh remains. With so much out of her control in the world, it makes sense that she remains steadfast in her conviction to stay. It’s not that she’s unafraid; she’s just not a quitter. We see her push back consistently against all barriers in her life, whether that’s by owning a contraband VCR or pressuring the director of the college on a weekly basis to be able to complete her studies. She reluctantly participates in gender expectations, but when Shideh is disciplined for appearing uncovered and catches her reflection in her borrowed chador, she is startled as if she’s seen a ghost. That being said, gender and political issues were treated with just enough focus to not come across like a lecture or condemnation on cultural practices. These themes are simply a bonus for those willing to look beyond the standard horror narrative, and will not distract the casual viewer from this entertaining thriller. Under The Shadow certainly gives room for those who love a meaty discussion.
Let’s Get Technical: The sound design in the movie is exceptional. We are immersed in the ambient sounds of war and the groaning, cracking building at all times. Sound is used to feed into tension and release it when needed, whether it’s through popping toast startling us or the droning dialogue of a Jane Fonda home workout. Several times it’s unclear what the origin of the sound is, and I found myself wondering if it was coming from the theatre itself.
The cinematography was impressive as well. Two scenes stand out in particular, one of which was a creatively accurate representation of anxiety. Large swaths of fabric encompass the room creating a pulsing, suffocating mass of dread. Shideh can’t find her way through and we are disoriented and gasping in unison with her until the moment of relief. Another scene blurs the line between waking and dream sequence, the camera rocking gently as Shideh wakes to find a surprise.
Overall: For a movie tackling so many layers, it is well done but by no means very scary for the seasoned horror fan. Under The Shadow is a film about war, gender roles, family, expectations, and folklore. Sufficiently creepy, it pays off a seemingly long introduction. It is no surprise that it was chosen as the U.K. Foreign-Language Oscar Entry – what a feat for this impressive debut.
Featured Image: Netflix