Wednesday, January 25, 2017


If two films make a category, here's a new one: the Iranian diaspora horror film. At first, there was Ana Lily Amirpour's dystopian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, filmed in the U.S., and now there is Great Britain's official entry for the Academy Awards' Foreign Language film competition, written and directed by Babak Anvari. Unlike A Girl, Under the Shadow is actually set in Iran, specifically during the 1980s war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and addresses some of the Islamic Republic's repressive policies. Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is a medical student (her mother was a doctor, and so is her husband) with two strikes against her, and in Iran it's two strikes and you're out. Being a woman might be problematic in the first place, but her worst offense is that during the 1979 revolution she took part in some secular leftist demonstrations. That disqualifies her from resuming her medical studies, according to the government. Until she thinks up a new career within the new bounds, she's stuck being a housewife and mother to Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who's fixated on her rag doll Kimiya. In angry resignation she consigns her medical books to the trash, with the meaningful exception of a textbook inscribed by her mother.

The war is intensifying. Saddam is firing missiles into Tehran and Shideh's husband is called to military service in a combat zone. Their neighbors are moving out of their apartment building and out of town after an Iraqi missile crashes through the roof. It doesn't explode but it gives an old man a fatal heart attack, Shideh's CPR efforts notwithstanding. Her husband urges her to evacuate, but she's reluctant to abandon the big city. Meanwhile, Dorsa is acting strangely. She tells her mom about talking to a new boy in the building who's supposed to be mute. She also talks to disembodied voices, while neighbors talk about djinn to Shideh's sophisticated dismay. She keeps trying to live like a liberated woman, sweating to her clandestine Jane Fonda exercise tape but tossing on the required modest coverings whenever someone rings the doorbell.

Family life deteriorates further after Kimiya the doll goes missing after the missile attack. A persistently feverish Dorsa insists that the doll must be in the closed-off upper floor, and she won't leave until Shideh finds it. Then Shideh's workout tape goes missing. Mother and daughter exchange recriminations after Shideh finds the casette in the garbage with the tape pulled out, and Kimiya eventually turns up mutilated in the locked desk drawer where Shideh keeps her medical textbook. It becomes increasingly apparent to Shideh that there's a third presence, at least, in the apartment that wishes them ill.

While the depopulated apartment building grows more menacing, the djinn increasingly appearing as a sort of animated chador that finally swells to the dimensions of a malevolent tent, Anvari makes clear that it's hardly less dangerous for Shideh outside. At one point she's so spooked that she runs out into the street with Dorsa, barefoot and without her public wrappings, until she's inevitably picked up by Tehran's roving morality police. "Are we in Switzerland now?" they ask her mockingly. Fortunately Shideh gets off with a strict reprimand ("We have values now," a cleric lectures her), but a larger point has been made. Shideh's building may have a specific djinn problem -- that becomes all too obvious during an inventive but overblown climax -- but the real challenge for our heroine is overcoming her stubborn hope of reclaiming her pre-revolutionary past on hostile ground. When she finally takes Dorsa out of the city it's only to move in with her husband's parents in the story, but metaphorically Under the Shadow's message is that the Islamic Republic itself has no place for her. To leave Tehran, and to leave behind relics of the past like the textbook and part of Kimiya, is symbolically to leave Iran, where horrors of different sorts persist. For those simply looking for chills, the film should entertain without seeming preachy, though some Americans might complain about a feminist message being forced down their throats. Anvari has a sure hand for the most part, and I liked how he was able to maintain a running gag about a garage door throughout his horror show and make it pay off at the climax. Another point in his film's favor is that, given how circumstances compel some filmmakers in Iran to stay indoors, it's easy to sustain the illusion of this British-made picture taking place in Iran. But while Shadow has obvious political relevance it also fits in to a global cycle of mother-child horror films (The Babadook, Goodnight Mommy, etc?) that may have something more to tell us about the wider world.

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