The Iran-Iraq War is raging and evil Djinn
spirits might just be real, but at least Iran’s Basij morality police is there
to protect then society from uppity women who aren’t wearing their chadors. The
repressive and misogynistic nature of the Islamist state compounds and in some
ways facilitates the supernatural horrors that plague a young mother and her
daughter in Iranian-born screenwriter-director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow (trailer here), which
screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
According to legend, Djinn are malevolent entities
that travel on “the Winds.” Those would be the psychic residuals generated by
humanity’s wrath, fear, and hatred—basically the dark side of the Force. With
Tehran facing regular Iraqi bombings and missile attacks, the Winds are
Shideh was studying to be a doctor like
her husband Iraj, but she was expelled for political reasons. Of course, just
being a woman did not help much either. While Iraj serves his annual medical
duty at the front, their daughter Dorsa consoles herself with Kimia, the
beloved doll he gave her. Unfortunately, when Kimia mysteriously disappears,
Dorsa becomes very difficult to handle.
Simultaneously, Shideh starts having
disturbingly realistic nightmares and even sees strange shadows out of the
corner of her eye. According to the creepy orphaned kid staying with his aunt and
uncle on the floor below, Djinn mark their victims forever by stealing their
most prized possessions. Shideh does not believe in superstition, but
eventually she has to face the uncanny facts.
Under the Shadow is the
sort of horror film that really raises the bar and throws down the gauntlet for
the genre. It is indeed massively creepy, so it more than fulfills its
immediate requirements. However, Anvari also bakes in a considerable amount of
social commentary, but he does so in a way that reinforces and amplifies the
mounting dread rather than detracting from it. Between the nefarious Djinn, the
suspicious Islamists Shideh must keep at bay, and the shells literally falling
on her building, Anvari has no end of means to make us jumpy.
The Iranian-German Narges Rashidi might
just give the best portrayal of a horror movie mom, maybe ever. Shideh is not
just trying to save her daughter. She is brimming with pent-up anger and
resentment for the injustice of her situation as well as the general narrowing
of opportunities for women in Islamist Iran. Avin Manshadi also shows unusual
range for a young thesp as Dorsa. Their difficult relationship brings to mind
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, but it
is considerably more complex and believable.
As if that were not enough, Anvari and
production designer Nasser Zoubi’s team vividly recreate the look and feel of
1980s Iran, down to Shideh’s bootleg Jane Fonda workout tape and the forbidden
top-loading VCR. Kit Fraser’s cinematography is eerie and evocative, perfectly
matching Anvari’s instinctive sense of how much (and how little) the film
should show to maintain its sense of dark mystery. Very highly recommended, Under the Shadow screens again this
Thursday (1/28) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Labels: Horror Movies, Iranian Cinema, Sundance '16