Film Review: Under the Shadow (2016)

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…and barely hanging on.

Longtime readers of my blog are familiar with my constant complaint that quality horror movies are few and far between. It probably makes me a snob, but the older I get the less interested I am in spending time watching something for the sake of supporting the genre. I just don’t have the patience for fountains of gore and crying teenagers in their underwear unless there is an intelligent twist on it, such as Cabin In the Woods or It Follows. 

Enter Under the Shadow. 

The UK’s entry for foreign language film for the Oscars, it was somehow not nominated. I’ve no idea why, and it’s a shame because this film isn’t just a great scare, it’s important. As I mentioned, intelligent horror films are few and far between, and one with such a riveting premise as Under the Shadow is doubly notable. It’s especially worthy of promotion as the world moves into a more xenophobic phase because it is about precisely that: superstitious thinking. 

The premise is fairly straightforward: a woman trapped in her apartment seeks to protect her child from a supernatural presence. However, there is so much context missing from that statement.

Although the horror bits are effective and a tangible and atmospheric dread hangs over the movie, the horror themes are the least interesting part, consisting mostly of jump scares and creepy imagery. What makes this movie so fascinating is the setting and main character.

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Shideh in her hijab

After a title card establishes the setting as 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, we meet our protagonist. Narges Rashidi plays Shideh, a young mother and wife. Shideh is having a sort of interview – she’s appealing to a university administrator to allow her to resume her medical studies so she can become a doctor. Her studies were originally interrupted a few years before by the Cultural Revolution of 1979, when Iran went from a swinging, happening place to The Opposite.

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University of Tehran brochure, pre-Ayatollah – not a veil in sight

[Author’s Note: I’m not going to sit here and lecture you on the history of Iran, partly because this is ostensibly a film blog and mostly because I literally didn’t even know Iran used to be Persia until about 10 years ago. And I only found that out because I was reading about the Iranian backlash against 300.  I’ve read up since then (Persepolis, documentaries and a lot of blogs) but still, I have the most superficial understanding of Iranian history and culture, and I’m just giving you some background as I understand it.]

As a student Shideh protested the Ayatollah’s Regime, and this went into her record. Visibly tense as the administrator goes over her records, she pleads with him to allow her to return to university. During their discussion, a missile in the background lands on a building; she notices, but the administrator stoically ignores it. The moment is brief but enlightening: she is aware of the danger surrounding her, but he refuses to acknowledge it. So begins a film about staying sane in the midst of a maddening crowd.

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“Maybe 6 hours of aerobics will cheer me up…”

The administrator rejects her request, superficially because of her past, but really because she is a woman. She goes home. As her husband is a practicing doctor, she tries to hide her resentment of his freedom to practice medicine. During a terse discussion about it, she packs up all her student textbooks and tells him to give them to someone who could use them – all but one. She keeps a medical book her mother gave her. Her husband, who is well-meaning but unaware of her deep misery, says that maybe it is ‘for the best,’ which only furthers her growing emotional distance from him.

Shideh’s intelligence and drive is manifested in her rigid domestic routine. The glasses in the pantry are meticulously organized according to size- and when stressed during the discussion with her husband, she begins reorganizing them. She is forever cleaning or maintaining the household and looking after their daughter, Dorsa. Because of frequent bombings from the Iraqis, the apartment building inhabitants must take shelter in the basement, and are forced to interact. Here Shideh becomes aware of a strange little boy who’s new to the building; a nephew of a neighbor who lost his parents in the war.

Although she observes the rule of the regime and wears her hijab outside the house, she takes it off at home in the friendly company, such as neighbor and babysitter Mrs. Fakur, and only pays lip service to religion – I say that because she doesn’t seem particularly observant, whereas another neighbor, Mrs. Ibrahim, brings up God in every other sentence. In defiance of the regime, Shideh has a VCR and some movies, and regularly works out along to a Jane Fonda workout tape. However, she has to hide such tiny rebellions from nosy Mrs Ibrahim, who barely ever removes her hijab and has totally internalized the Regime’s beliefs. In an atmosphere where she can be whipped for going out without her hijab, Shideh struggles to hold on to her individuality.

Shideh’s frustration is also on display when her husband is called up for service; his medical knowledge is needed at the front, and she can’t help but be jealous and accuses him of ‘playing doctor.’ It’s not her finest moment, but it’s also a deeply understandable reaction: she’s lashing out at the one thing she has control over, her husband’s feelings. Shitty? Yes. A human reaction to a dehumanizing situation? GOD, yes.

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From the movie.

As the situation deteriorates, Shideh tries to leave the war-torn city for her husband’s parents’ house in a safer part of the country, but is trapped when her daughter suddenly develops a high fever. More and more, she finds herself drawn into the belief that she and her daughter are being haunted by a Djinn, an Arabic demon. The Djinn gives her a concrete villain with which to battle as opposed to the bomb-lobbing Iraqis and the stifling sociopolitical atmosphere.

Under the Shadow is a great think-piece about a lot of things: xenophobic atmospheres; magical thinking in times of crisis; the madness of crowds; war; religious mania; family dynamics; and of course, the possibilities that horror movies present in commenting on social matters. It’s a good movie for people who like to think and talk about what they’ve just seen, and inform themselves on complex matters.

It’s available on Instant Watch and I highly recommend it!

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Author: jennnanigans

Orlando-area writerly person.

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