UNDER THE SHADOW is a movie that could easily have resembled little more than an unwieldy collage of ideas, with its varying tones and shifts of style.
Fortunately, Iranian director Babak Anvari pulls the artistically herculean task off with such brio that it is incredible to think of it as his first full length feature. Its myriad expressions give it a distinctiveness that ensure it to be a delight not just for any seasoned horror fan but anyone craving for something outside the vanilla zeitgeist of our times. Previously known for his BAFTA nominated short “Two & Two”, Anvari is possibly aware that with this flawless cinematic tour-de-force, he may already have filmed his best-ever work.
It is an undoubtedly singular creation, made by one man looking to conquer as many silver screen ideals as possible within an expertly edited 84-minute running time.
The film details the travails of a female medical student, Shideh, as she seeks to return to her studies in post-revolution Iran. Unfortunately, having been active within leftist radical groups, the war-torn state bars her from further learning. Instead, she remains at home with her daughter, living in Tehran much to her husband’s consternation as the city crumbles around her. There, the story takes a lurch to the surreal and a shift in character perspective as through a violent development, her daughter Dorsa becomes increasingly unhinged.
What is miraculous is how the movie manages to maintain suspense and tangible interest in the characters whilst veering from one cinematic beat to the next.
Several segments adhere to the floating, mephitic air of an arthouse horror flick such as IT FOLLOWS or SUSPIRIA, yet Anvari is not afraid to also litter the distinctive story with jump scares. Though often decried as the cornerstone of unintelligent, cattle-prod cinema, a well-executed shock is exceptionally hard to pull off and yet the movie accomplishes each horror beat with aplomb. All the while it owes a significant debt to Asian cinema, as the cinematography through these passages moonlights much of the best work of Hideo Nakata such as CHAOS and DARK WATER.
Other parts of the movie meanwhile, remain equally challenging. The director isn’t afraid to dissect the anarchy engulfing the central characters. Whilst ensuring it remains secondary to the primary narrative, he intelligently critiques one of the most disastrous series of events to hit the Middle East in living memory. He manages not only to provide commentary on the world of the cinema, but the world beyond in a way that the best work of Guillermo Del Toro accomplishes in utilising its historical contexts.
It even somehow manages to make the realism of handheld moviemaking seem fresh and free of cliché. Perhaps due to its dark subject matter, feels contextually justified. The first act is told in a utilitarian fashion more in the style of CLOVERFIELD, but with a superior level of substance. This gives heft to the sense of powerlessness felt by the main characters. The performances bind the story, weaving the wonderfully crafted dialogue of the script (Persian – English subtitles) with the emotions of the characters themselves. The futility of their plight combined with the infectious miasma of dreams and disturbing visions is heightened by the excellence of Narges Rashidi playing Shideh, the medically inclined mother, and the child Avin Mashandi, playing her daughter Dorsa.
The supporting cast is diminutive in number, with the magnitude of the instability plaguing Tehran portrayed largely through suggestion and tone rather than cast size. Yet to a man they act with distinction, serious in a way that adds credibility to horror cinema.
The British Academy of Film have nominated this movie as their artistic representative for “Best Film in a Foreign Language” at next year’s Academy Awards. With a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes and an upcoming release date in the United States, expect this movie to feature heavily in people’s considerations for film of the year in the coming months.
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Words by Nick Earl