Mark Reviews Movies

Under the Shadow


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Babak Anvari

Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Behi Djanati Atai, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for terror, scary images and brief language)

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 10/7/16 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 7, 2016

One comes away from Under the Shadow wondering if the story even needs an otherworldly spirit to terrorize its characters. Consider: The film is set near the end of the Iran-Iraq War in Tehran—a time when and place where bombings have become common and the rumors of imminent missile attacks, which will come without warning, are about to be confirmed. This reality is terrifying enough. The fact of a post-revolution Iran, in which our protagonist is unable to fulfill her dream because of politics or to leave her apartment without covering her head, is stifling enough without an evil spirit further inhibiting her life.

In the film, a jinn, a supernatural entity that is as old as Arabian mythology and was given new life in Islamic tradition, is what seems to be causing the additional problems for Shideh (Narges Rashidi). She reads a passage from a book about belief in jinn, which states that the traditional thinking is that these creatures travel on the wind. The wind to which the book refers is more of a metaphor, though, for times of change, fear, and anxiety. There's plenty of all three of those things here, and fear and anxiety are powerful enough forces without some supernatural being tossed into the mix.

This is, in part, the strength of writer/director Babak Anvari's debut feature film—the notion that the jinn is both unnecessary to the story and vital to highlighting the underlying emotional state of its characters. There's a feeling that the film could go either way on the existence of the entity—that it is either real or just the psychological manifestation of the turmoil of the characters' situation. Because Anvari primarily concentrates his attention on these characters and their very real predicaments, there's also a sense that, whichever way he takes the story, there's no chance that the film will be cheating.

Shideh begins the film in an administrative office at her old medical school. Because of the revolution, she and everyone else in university had to quit their studies. Shideh has been trying to return to school, but she chose the wrong side during the revolution. In this political climate, there is no forgiving and forgetting.

Shideh is married to Iraj (Bobby Naderi), who was able to complete his university studies and is now a doctor. She resents him, although it's not because of his success. It's because he suggested that Shideh forgo her education to fulfill the traditional role of a wife and to be an attentive mother to their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi).

In those past words from her husband, she now hears the same religion-fueled social attitude that constantly denies her of and judges her for what she wants. The building's landlord (Ray Haratian) scolds Iraj because he suspects Shideh doesn't close the door to the garage properly. Surely, it must be her, because she's a woman, and there's no missing the tone with which the landlord points out that Shideh is the only woman in the building who drives.

Iraj is once again conscripted into military service as a medic, and this time, he will on the front line. He insists that Shideh and Dorsa go to his family's home in the country to escape the regular attacks on the city. If Shideh cannot have the life she wants, she will at least make this one decision to stay in her home.

Anvari mounts the assorted pressures on Shideh. There's her husband in the midst of battle. There's Dorsa, who wets herself in bed because she's too scared to go to the bathroom on her own in the middle of the night. There's her daughter's obsession with a missing doll, which results in Dorsa sneaking out of the apartment to search for her beloved toy. Then, of course, there's the threat of bombs and missiles. When the siren howls in the night, everyone in the building hustles to the basement, and as the attacks become more frequent, Anvari ensures that we note the open space in that basement, as more and more people flee Tehran. In one harrowing scene, a missile strikes the building, and Shideh must navigate around the undetonated armament to help a man who has suffered a heart attack.

Was it a heart attack, though? The man's wife is convinced that her husband died of fright, having seen some unknown presence in the room after the missile hit. Dorsa has been talking about the presence of a jinn after hearing about the creature from a boy who is supposedly mute after his parents were killed in an attack. Shideh is skeptical, as is her only friend (Behi Djanati Atai) in the building, but anyone else who hears about the jinn is certain it's true. After all, the existence of jinn is confirmed multiple times by the Quran.

Avarni's screenplay is especially effective in how it uses this scenario as a way to dissect superstitious beliefs. The rationale for believing in such things is not just out of cultural and/or religious tradition here. There's also a complicit understanding that the terrors and horrors of the real world, such as a city under constant and sudden siege, are too much too bear—too confounding to rationalize.

In a strange way, the notion of a spirit, flying around and hovering through the building in a lengthy cloak, makes more sense to fear, and Under the Shadow recognizes the appeal of having a target, no matter how unlikely it may. This way, at least, there's an object of fear that can be identified and blamed, instead of looking within oneself or one's society for the real cause.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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