Nothing is more terrifying than when fear forces its way in to our own home; our apparent place of total safety. So, in his debut feature, Director Babak Anvari chooses to explore this fear by combining the threat of destruction from both human and paranormal forces.
Set in 1980’s Iran, at the height of the Iran-Iraq conflict, Shideh, her husband Iraj and daughter Dorsa, live in continual threat from the volatile political war and imminent threat of missiles dropping on their home. When Iraj is called away to serve his country, Shideh and Dorsa are left alone in their apartment to face a new threat, a supernatural demon carried on the wind; the djinn. Whilst Shideh initially dismiss the idea of the djinn as a mere childish fairytale, she becomes increasingly terrified and fearful for her daughter’s life.
After a missile hits Shideh’s apartment building, the very immediate human threat to her world begins to manifest itself in supernatural ways. Director Anvari uses the power of the implied to chip away at our nerves, creating fleeting glimpses and barely seen moments that put us on edge. Dorsa tells her mother of her fear of the djinn and is convinced someone has taken her treasured doll. With her nerves on edge and alone with her child, Shideh begins to experience unexplainable disturbing events. Figures appearing in her bed, expanding, breathing cracks in the celling, an unrelenting fever that overcomes Dorsa. One moment builds upon another, slowly stacking up until Shideh believes that that the Djinn does indeed want to possess her child. When night falls, with the use of muted colours and minimal shafts of light falling, your heart will start creeping to your throat and it won't take much to tip you over the edge; a simple shot of Dorsa standing at the foot of her mother’s bed is incredibly powerful and downright unnerving. By blurring the boundary between sleep and consciousness, the nightmarish dreams of Shideh play with our perceptions of external terror and the fear that our mind creates. It is hard to know whether or not we can trust our own selves, which perhaps is the most frightening concept of all.
The strength of Under the Shadow comes from these well-conceived characters and clear back story. While the very real threat of war is established from the outset, the mirroring evil threat of the unknown is a slow burn. We have time to understand the dynamic of the family and their situation before even the concept of something out of this world is introduced. Shideh is a frustrated, angry and lost woman who is told she can no longer qualify as a doctor after left wing political activity as a student. This repression feeds in to her loving yet strained relationship with her husband and shows a flawed yet likeable character that we can instantly connect with.
Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi as mother and daughter capture that unquestionable love yet sometimes emotional hate that exist between a mother and child. This in itself is just as powerfully unsettling as the unknown horror. A frustrated, angry moment of the two physically fighting had me holding my breath without realising. By playing on our primal fears; that of our relationships, our safety and our flaws being held up for self-examination, the film hits the most terrifying points of all. As others start abandoning the building, Dorsa and her mother are left to face the djinn alone and save themselves.
Under the Shadow already has the feel of a genre classic, perhaps in part to its period setting and obvious cinematic influences. Time will tell if it can strive to these heights but when something is this entertaining and disturbing, it deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible.
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Under the Shadow (2016)
Director: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi