Under the Shadow – VIFF 2016 Review


Set amidst the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s (“This war seems to be never ending,” quips one character early on in the film) and with a sinking feeling of dread everlasting, Babak Anvari’s (Two & Two) latest cinematic offering is a forcible ghost story with a stirring feminist slant.

Narges Rashidi is stunning as Shideh; grieving her mother’s recent death and blacklisted from medical college by the deeply sexist post-Revolution government, she lives with her ineffectual husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and troubled young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi, excellent) in an outmoded apartment building in Tehran. Under constant threat of aerial bombardment, Shideh, her family, and her neighbours, live in appreciable fear.

Soon after Iraj is drafted to the frontlines of the conflict their building is bombed and an undetonated missile brings with it an atavistic evil in the form of a Djinn (an evil spirit of Islamic mythology and theology).

Anvari’s film invites comparisons to Jennifer Kent’s 2014 psychological horror The Babadook, and both films lean heavily upon protective mothers and their troubled child being preyed upon by the supernatural. And similarly, both films are nerve-wracking and artfully atmospheric, though Under the Shadow, it must be said, is not above a few low tariff jump scares. Too bad, but being in genre territory, a few shrills and ruses are forgivable.

As Shideh and Dorsa’s plight progresses––after increased agony and alarms they are soon the sole tenants of their building and a fast-emptying city––so too does their dangerous destiny. Dream sequences incense and startle, there’s even a window-shattering vision that recalls Suspiria, and the score from Gavin Cullin, while not nearly as soul-pummeling as Goblin’s, is still a devilish doozy.

On the whole, Under the Shadow works well as an unnerving small-scale fright fest, and it’s buoyed by great performances from Rashidi and young Manshadi. Echoes of Polanski and Roeg are easily attributed in the careful claustrophobia which, when paired with the societal prejudices of the film lead to viciously generous visual compensations. Under the Shadow supplies a strong sense of genuine danger and a subtext that’s both resonant and enraging, and the uncompromising finish is both chilling and resolute. Recommended.

Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.