Movie Review: ‘UNDER THE SHADOW’ – horror filmmaking at its peak

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

UNDER THE SHADOW | 84 min | PG-13
Director: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby NaderiRay Haratian and Arash Marandi

Culture is something that is different throughout our existence. It is a way of life subjective to a group of people, varying in size, and having its own standards. All cultures are designated by geography and history, being born from a mentality that spread to a certain extent.

Some cultures accept the malleability of life and that change is inevitable; other cultures are staunch in maintaining the exact principles that have been upheld as sanctity. A realization of culture helps identify a place of difference but is the crux of empathy: Yes, we come from different places and backgrounds, but it’s meant to be embraced in order to accept one another, and the fact that our existence is a co-existence in some form.

These ideas are important when watching a foreign film. While it comes from a different place, its concepts shouldn’t be seen as foreign. It doesn’t matter that the couple is Japanese when the characters inhabit the reality of love or heartbreak… some concepts are universal. Whether they are accepted or not is a completely different matter.

Most cultures (minus the outliers) recognize independence as a basic human right, regardless of gender or sexuality. And, because we hold this to be true, it lends empathy to seeing another culture oppress this truth. This is what UNDER THE SHADOW elicits from the viewer, as a woman struggles to save her and her daughter from both the supernatural and the reality of being an Iranian woman.

Avin Manshadi and Narges Rashidi star in UNDER THE SHADOW. Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Avin Manshadi and Narges Rashidi star in UNDER THE SHADOW. Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Set in Tehran during the 1980s, in the midst of the conflict between Iraq and Iran, the film starts with Shideh (Narges Rashidi) attempting to resume her medical studies at university. However, the dean shames her for being a part of the Iranian Revolution, and emphatically tells her she is not welcome to learn. As she struggles to accept this fact, her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) has been drafted to fight in the war. He departs with their marriage strained, and Shideh determined to stay and prove she can protect their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi).

However, their world starts to crumble around them, literally and figuratively, as a missile lands in their building without detonation, and bringing a malevolent force. What starts as skepticism on Shideh’s part quickly becomes prevalent as Dorsa becomes sick. Further evidence is provided in the form of her neighbor, and the mention of the djinn circling their homes in order to take Dorsa. It is a classic horror motif of parent protecting child, but it is coupled with a realistic horror that she must also try to protect her from as a woman.

What makes UNDER THE SHADOW such a powerful film is that it uses the element of horror to impact the weight of societal pressure felt by Shideh. The monster in this instance, the djinn, comes from the text of the Quran, and is coming after Dorsa, whose youth is representative of the future. It is a ghost story bereft with symbolism of oppression as well as overt examples. This is further exemplified by Dorsa’s obsession with her doll Kimia; the majority of the second and third act revolves around looking for Kimia (Kimia means “chemistry” in Persian), which has been taken from her by the djinn. As we watch a horror story unfold, we are met with the allegory of Shideh’s internal conflict.

The majority of UNDER THE SHADOW takes place in confined spaces to help accentuate Shideh’s predicament. Director Babak Anvari uses subtle camerawork to distinguish moments of reality and the oneiric. Both Shideh and Dorsa are shot in focus as their world blurs slightly behind them, creating moments of claustrophobia; sporadic sounds of bombings in the background heighten the tension to put the viewer in Shideh’s mounting dilemma.

Because of these elements of oppression, fear is ever present in UNDER THE SHADOW, which is the British entry for next year’s Academy Awards. This fear allows for an expansion of imagination and concern. The empathy we feel for Shideh never stops; it leads to one of the tensest moments of the movie involving her trying to escape. Layers of horror are blended throughout the story, from the horrors of being an oppressed Iranian woman to the horrors of a mother fearing for her child. It isn’t just the best horror film of 2016, but one of the best films of 2016.

UNDER THE SHADOW is playing on various VOD services and in select theaters today.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.