Under the Shadow

Year: 2016
Production Co: Wigwam Films
Director: Babak Anvari
Writer: Babak Anvari
Cast: Narges Rashidi

A large part of the appeal of this movie is similar to what everyone loved about A Separation and I certainly liked about Caramel. It's a Middle Eastern screenwriter and filmmaker talking about their part of the world as it really is, not as The West sees it. Caramel was a romcom about a sexy hairdresser working in contemporary Beirut. A Separation was the story about the breakdown of a marriage in contemporary Tehran. In both cases, as a Westerner, I expected an Israeli rocket attack, streets full of hysterical jihadis, the politically sanctioned abuse of women or some other kind of social violence.

And even though some of that stuff isn't only present in Under the Shadow but forms the backbone of the narrative, films like it (and those mentioned above) remind us that war and violence on the front doorstep isn't all that exists in the lives of these people no matter how present it is for them and how alien it is to us in the US, Western Europe and Australasia. They fall in love, get their hair cut, take their kids to school and get divorced just like the rest of us do and in this case, they also deal with ghosts.

I'm not sure if writer/director Babak Anvari intended the invasion of an evil entity in a house to be a metaphor for the Iran/Iraq war to any extent but even if he didn't, it's a very well made and creepy ghost thriller without it.

We meet Shideh (Marges Rashidi) in the late 80s when the cloak of fundamentalism has descended over her country after it used to be a much freer place (maybe the totalitarianism of extreme Islam is one of the shadows Anvari is referring to?). She wants to resume her medical studies, but because of her involvement with student rights groups while she was younger she's given a lifetime ban by the patient but stoic head of the department. Devastated, Shideh goes home and throws all but one of her old textbooks away, intending to try and get on with her life with her little girl Dorsa and husband Iraj.

But the war with Iraq is intensifying, and the missile strikes which her and the neighbours in her apartment building can hear are getting closer. Iraj, also a doctor, is conscripted and called away to serve at the front, imploring Shideh to take their daughter and stay with Shideh's parents, who are further away from the fighting, but Shideh wants to stay at home and give Dorsa some stability.

But as the air raids intensify and they tape up their windows, things get darker. A new family moves in with a little mute boy, and during one panicked crisis as the air raid sirens start to wail he whispers to Dorsa, handing her something she later tells her mother is to protect her from the djinn that's haunting the building.

Although Shideh wants none of it, things quickly go from bad to worse. Dorsa comes down with a violent fever and starts having nightmares. An Iraqi missile comes through the roof of their building, sitting in the middle of an apartment unexploded like a grandfather clock. Worse still, Shideh herself starts having strange dreams and seeing strange things. She's on the phone to Iraj whenever she can get through but he can't come home any time soon. When the fighting intensifies the neighbours start to move away, and Shideh is left more alone. When she finally admits something awful is haunting her and her child and decides to flee, it might be too late when Dorsa has disappeared while searching for her beloved doll.

Anvari, like a lot of directors working in horror in recent times, is more interested in mood, character and design that blood and violence (gratifyingly so). There aren't enough traditional jump scares to count on one hand, not even a lot of those nerve sawing scenes of tension that makes you wait for a jump scare (like the one of Shideh sitting in bed brandishing a knife while watching the bedroom door, the camera slowly panning towards it).

Instead there's a seamless and actually fairly gentle blend of plot and genre colour. The sightings of ghosts and monsters, when they come, are so understated and sudden you wonder if you even saw them, much like Shideh herself.

The climatic battle with the creature suits the story and cinematography, but visually it amounts to little more than a camera caught up in an ornate bedsheet. The single worthy trailer moment – of Shideh suddenly realising there's a human figure standing in a doorway who runs out of the room as soon as she focuses on it in shock – is over before you've even realised.

Mostly it's a very effective portrait of a young woman coming undone. Rashidi is great as Shideh, portrayed as a mother with a fraying temper not above yelling at her child as a reaction to her terror and confusion instead of the kind of beatific, perfectly loving mother the American version of this story would make her.

The study ban and the escalating hostilities mean it's not just a Hollywood genre movie transposed to some other part of the world like some non-English movies are (like Roar Uthaug's The Wave) – it's uniquely anchored in its historical period and setting – but it's not about Islam, the subjugation of women by political repression or war, it's just about a woman trying to deal with a ghost.

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