Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow ★★★★★

Shideh, her head shrouded within her hijab, desperately pleads with an administrator to allow her to return to university so that she can graduate and become a doctor. At the time of the revolution she was young, impressionable and passionate for change. But she sided with the wrong side of the Iranian cultural revolution. However, now she sees the error of her ways. The administrator waits patiently until she is finished and then he demolishes her, derisively intoning with a glint of sadistic pleasure that one's choices have indelible consequences and hence she will never be admitted to the campus again.

During this conversation, as seen through the office window, a bomb explodes in nearby urban Tehran giving rise to a disturbing plume of dust and debris, an emissary of death courtesy of Saddam Hussein. In this one conversation at the very beginning of the film we are immersed into the post-revolutionary world of late 80s Iran. Politics, culture and conflict are encapsulated perfectly in this one short scene and once established this combustible mix becomes an increasingly claustrophic knot that only gets tighter the more that Shideh struggles against it.

Once home we meet her young daughter Dorsa, her husband Iraj and Dorsa's doll Kimia. We quickly get the sense that Shideh is struggling with the grief of having lost her mother six months before. And although she clearly loves her daughter very much, it is clear that the motherly instinct eludes her. Given this, there is a simmering tension within the household even before the plot kicks in. When Iraj receives his draft papers and ships off to the frontlines, Shideh and Dorsa find themselves struggling to negotiate one another without his mediation.

In between her living room workouts in front of a Jane Fonda video cassette, Narges Rashidi shifts from pout to shout in ever increasing gradations, playing Shideh with a masterful control even as her character starts to lose it completely, descending into a fever of fear and horror. Avin Manshadi is a fantastic find as her daughter. In one of the best child perfomances in a recent horror movie she perfecrly blends the maturity of an old soul with the vulnerability of a child.

In fine psychological horror tradition, this film pushes the limits of that boundary between psychosis and the fantastic, never once collapsing the tension by resolving it into one or the other. What makes this so interesting is that Dorsa is the hinge between both worlds. As the apartment descends further into the hell of war, we are lead to question whether the nightmare phantoms of a scared little girl are being adopted by the mind of an adult beset by her own anxiety and fear. Or on the other hand, does the open-mindness of a child, less restricted by the cold hard reason of maturity, only make Dorsa more readily receptive to the all too real horrors that lurk beneath our beds.

Having said that, the truly creepy and horrorifying elements of this film are not what sets this apart. Director Babak Anvari has provided us with what feels like an authentic recreation of the claustrophobia of late 80s Tehran. In particular, besides the war and superstition, it reveals to us the emotional cost of the constant suppression of one's identity when you are out of step with the dominant ideology and everything you want to do is throttled by the authorities or must be hidden. And this is where the film is truly exceptional.

With an interesting historical, political and social context; fantastic central performances and a knife-edge narrative of pyschological and supernatural horror, this film is as intense as they come and totally fascinating. Highly recommended.

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