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article imageReview: ‘Under the Shadow’ is frightening before the monster even arrives Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Oct 18, 2016 in Entertainment
‘Under the Shadow’ combines the real terrors of war with the mythical horror of a supernatural monster that threatens a family.
Living under the constant threat of violence or death in a war-torn city is probably more frightening than any scary story or horror movie. Pulling neighbours from the rubble of the latest onslaught and being forced out of one’s home because it’s unsafe to spend another night becomes the norm rather than the exception. G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote says that fairy tales were created to demonstrate monsters can be killed… but what if their other purpose was to warn people of the creatures’ existence and instruct them on how to triumph? In Under the Shadow, a woman realizes there are even more things to be afraid of as she tries to protect her daughter from missile strikes and whatever is lurking in the shadows.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) dreamed of being a doctor, but the Iran-Iraq war has all but destroyed any chance she had of resuming her studies. Instead she must embrace her duties as a full-time mother and savour the time she carves out for herself to work out with a Jane Fonda VHS tape. When her husband (Bobby Naderi) is conscripted, she is left alone in Tehran with their young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), where missile strikes are becoming a regular occurrence. Reluctant to retreat to her in-laws home outside the city, Shideh insists on holding out as long as possible. However her hesitation becomes regret when an attack is revealed to have had a secondary consequence: a djinn was released in their building and it’s latched onto Dorsa. Shideh dismisses the possibility at first, but it becomes increasingly clear that her family has more to worry about than bombs.
It’s not often one comes across an Iranian horror movie, but first-time feature writer/director Babak Anvari has a keen understanding of how to make a good one. The build-up is slow, establishing the characters and their relationships to each other. Shideh is having a difficult time giving up her dreams and preventing her despair from leaking into her home life. She loves Dorsa, but since being a mother is a contributing factor to her failure, she’s having trouble fully embracing her parental role at the moment. It’s not that she’s a bad mom — just a frustrated one. However according to those who believe and circulate the legend of the djinn, it’s those negative feelings that attract them most.
Yet the scary creatures don’t come into play until later in the film. The initial fear is generated by the constant threat of being blown up. Air raid sirens ring regularly, sending residents fleeing to the basement as it’s the closest thing they have to a bomb shelter. As they gather in startled clusters, the walls shake from a nearby hit and they patiently wait to see if they’re next. Shattered windows, undetonated warheads and collapsing infrastructure are the source of the early scares — and they’re presented very effectively. Anvari builds a dark, upsetting atmosphere before the djinn is even introduced into the narrative; once it is, he continues to gradually ramp up the film’s intensity until the ultimate climax.
Rashidi is excellent as she successfully conveys Shideh’s conflicting emotions. It’s clear she’s doing her best and easy to forgive her maternal transgressions since she’s understandably on edge. You want Shideh to succeed in saving her daughter because audiences can connect with her and understand her position. The only weak part of her performance is the lack of form in her workout sessions. Manshadi is equally good, particularly as a child actor who doesn’t exaggerate her role. Viewers can similarly understand why she is giving her mom a hard time, but she’s not annoying enough that you hope the djinn win.
The film is a U.K. co-production and will be the country’s Oscar entry for the foreign-language film category. It screened at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival as the opening night gala selection.
Director: Babak Anvari
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi and Bobby Naderi
More about Under the Shadow, Toronto After Dark, Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Babak Anvari
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