Sunday 28 August 2016

Under the Shadow (Iran/Jordan/Quatar/UK 2016: Dir Babak Anvari)

Iranian born director Babak Anvari has dug deep into his own life story for the setting of his first directorial feature, Under the Shadow. He was born in the middle of the Iran/Iraq war, and his doctor father would regularly be posted to different locations, leaving the anxious Anvari and his brother alone in the house with their mother for long stretches of time.

This scenario forms the basis for a tense and genuinely frightening movie about isolation, the ever present threat of conflict (the film is set in Tehran) and the supernatural. The story introduces us to Shideh, who is mother to a sweet little girl called Dorsa. As the film opens Shideh's request to return to medical school has just been turned down because of her previous record of political activity. Her disappointment at this decision is compounded by her husband Iraj, a qualified doctor, who is dismissive of her aspirations, wanting her to devote more time to being a mother. Tensions in the family, already strained because of money issues, escalate when Iraj is given a military posting to a high-conflict area. Left alone in their flat, Dorsa forms a friendship with a strange orphan boy living in another apartment, and as a result starts talking about the djinn, an evil spirit who may be coming to hurt them. As a progressive woman Shideh is dismissive of this, but events in the flat quickly and terrifyingly escalate, focusing on the now fever-ridden Dorsa, gradually leading her to accept the truth about a demonic presence.

Narges Rashidi as Shideh
Under the Shadow is a film of two halves, which resist accusations of 'oil and water' storytelling as both elements are equally frightening in different ways. In the first section we are exposed not only to the unfairness of Shideh's thwarted ambition, but also the cloud of secrecy she must live under to enjoy a life with some respite from Iranian strictures. It may be unfair for western audiences to pronounce judgement on the ways of 1980s Iran without fully understanding its culture, but its effects on an intelligent woman trying to hold her life together are plain to see. We witness Sideh working out to a Jane Fonda tape, a ritual that is clearly something she holds dear (later once the tape has gone missing she will exercise in front of a blank TV screen, in order to preserve some sense of sanity in her world), played on a VCR that she hides when strangers visit the flat. We also see her trying to keep the household together after Iraj leaves, despite pleas from friends and family to flee the city as the conflict draws nearer to Tehran. Even after an unexploded bomb lands on the flat above, causing a massive crack to appear in her ceiling, she remains.

So when then the supernatural elements start to creep in, just over half way through the film, tension is already at breaking point. The frightening events of the second half of the film are made worse by a creeping realisation that the demonic presence - which reveals itself to Dorsa first in an attempt to drive a wedge between mother and daughter - is possibly here as punishment for Sideh's cultural transgression. Anvari cleverly bases his demon on Iranian belief; as one of the characters says, the djinn, a supernatural creature with roots in Arabic and middle eastern mythology, is frequently mentioned in the Quran. One could argue that this is an attempt to rise above the standard fright flick monster. But fear not, he's quite capable of delivering good old fashioned scares, including a 'jump' moment that caused one person in my screening to scream, a rare event in hardened critic circles.

Avin Manshadi as Dorsa
There is some incredibly impressive acting on display here from the three leads: Bobby Naderi as the stoic and rigid Iraj, a very believable Avin Manshadi in her first role as Dorsa, and Narges Rashidi, already an accomplished actor, who is absolutely first rate as Shideh, balancing frustration and determination as she struggles to keep things together.

A number of people have suggested that Under the Shadow borrows from The Babadook simply because the film features a mother and child's relationship with a creature of darkness, a comparison  I reject as rather lazy. While it's true that the setup is not in itself original (although the context definitely is), I'm far more intrigued by the more subtle genre references at work; the initial smaller disturbances affecting the family, like Dorsa's doll and Sideh's exercise tape going missing, suggests the haunting-by-stealth of the the earlier Paranormal Activity entries; the gradual deterioration of Sideh's nerves and the condition of her flat, in particular the hole in the ceiling which she rather pathetically tries to mend with masking tape (and which will be the location for one of the film's more frightening scares) reminded me of Roman Polanski's 1965 film Repulsion. And finally, and without giving too much away, the film contains the creepiest use of a bedsheet since, and possibly influenced by Jonathan Miller's 1968 BBC TV adaptation of the MR James story Whistle and I'll Come to You.

In interviews Babak Anvari has mentioned that he's not a fan of horror films per se, and audiences shouldn't expect his next film to be Under the Shadow 2 or even a film within the same genre. I think that's probably wise, because it would hard to top this as one of the tensest scariest films I've seen for quite some time. But whatever it is, his next film will be eagerly anticipated.

No comments:

Post a Comment