Reviews - Under the Shadow
Under the Shadow
Reviewed By John Porter
A besieged Tehran during the late 1980s forms the context and setting into which Anvari weaves seams of Middle-Eastern mythology alongside contemporary horror and war-torn family drama.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives in the city during the Iran-Iraq war with her husband who is a doctor, and daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Around rising domestic conflicts as Shideh fails to enroll in medical school, her husband is drafted to fight and leaves home. He pleads with her to take Dorsa into the countryside where the air raids are less frequent, but Shideh insists on staying in their apartment block. The attacks come and go, and Dorsa plays with the neighbourhood children, one of whom tells her stories about the Djinn, untrustworthy, folkloric beings of disparate and often malevolent intentions who arrive, "on bad winds". With the lodging of an unexploded bomb in the roof of the building it is revealed that the child spreading the spook stories is actually mute, and when Dorsa's doll vanishes, taken as a totem by the evil from the skies, reality and fantasy begin to blend into a focused and tight movie which still manages to invite multiple interpretations.
From the outset, 'Under the Shadow' creates a foundation of solid realities: The dangers of living in a war-zone, the inescapability of political histories, and the personal frustrations in the path of life. We linger on a profile shot of Shideh driving away from her rebuttal at University as tears run her cheeks, wiping her face only to go through the army checkpoints. Household arguments between her and her husband are also presented matter-of-factly, shifting from room to room and setting up the geography of the apartment, soon to become so important in scenes of frantic searching for dolls and daughters. Day to day life is hard but also tangible and manageable, and while the movie gathers momentum, it is portrayed as such.
The horror elements of the narrative appear gradually alongside this realism, and it is testament to the pacing and authenticity of Anvari's portrayal of life in the Middle East, neither sensationalist nor banal, that as the mood becomes more insidious we are never quite sure as to our foothold in reality. This shaky line between existence and imagination is expanded still further with the muddied waters of asleep and awake. Dreams of Djinn first plague Dorsa, leaving Shideh patronising the child’s fears before she too is troubled by the spirits. Dorsa also insists that a mute boy told her scary stories, and again Shideh initially has trouble believing. The child’s-eye-view of the world is one where the concrete realities of bombed out Iran are no more or less important than folklore, and the movie slowly brings Shideh, and so too the audience, around to this alternate position from which to regard the story.
Narges Rashidi's portrayal of emotional turmoil as the tormented female protagonist is convincing, as is her handling of a minor sub-plot driven by feelings of failed responsibility to her deceased mother in not becoming a doctor. This is a movie concerned with both maternal instincts and the plight of strong minded women under repressive, male-centric laws. Although labelled as Horror, 'Under the Shadow' also succeeds on other levels, managing to balance and explore social, historical, and political themes deftly within the generic framework.
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