Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a wife and mother living in post-revolution Tehran in the mid-80s. The city is under attack from bombings on a regular basis; whenever the bomb sirens sound, Shideh and her family - husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) - rush down to their apartment block's communal shelter basement, which they share with a motley bunch of neighbours. In-between attacks, residents are urged to flee north of the city where the war is not so intense.
When Iraj's doctoring skills are called upon on the frontline, he suggests that Shideh and Dorsa should go and stay with his parents up north. The fiercely independent Shideh, however, refuses to budge and vows to stay in the apartment with her daughter.
However, with Iraj gone, soon the threat of bombings is not the only thing concerning Shideh. Firstly, Dorsa befriends an apparently mute kid staying in the apartment with his aunty, who tells her of a Djinn which is coming to get her. Then, we have a missile attack so close that it causes damage to the ceiling of Shideh's apartment - an act which Dorsa insists signifies the arrival of the Djinn.
Initially unconvinced, there are a couple of sinister, unexplained events to come which will make Shideh doubt her own rational beliefs. Could her more traditional neighbours be right when they speak of evil spirits that claim a personal belonging in a bid to haunt an individual? And if so, should Shideh believe Dorsa's claims that the Djinn has stolen her favourite teddy?
As the bomb attacks and interior scares become more profound, Shideh fends off Iraj's increasingly fraught please via telephone call for them to vacate to calmer climes. After all, if the superstitious stories are to be believed, the Djinn would simply follow her and Dorsa - unless they can find the missing cuddly toy first...
All of which probably sounds somewhat trite. But in British writer-director Babak Anvari's hands, this Farsi-spoken thriller becomes much weightier. It opens with archive newsreel footage from the war, placing firmly in a setting of fear and paranoia. Then we meet Shideh, a strong-minded soul living under oppressive conditions. Her first appearance on screen reveals that she was formerly in the medical profession too, but is now banned from practising due to her previous involvement in a protestation group. She dared to speak out against her government and, it seems, must pay the price socially now.
At home, the tension between Shideh and Iraj quickly becomes evident - largely because of their conflicting political attitudes and his ability to enjoy a career doing what she is now forbidden from achieving. But the apartment is itself is important to Shideh as it represents a haven for her where she's free to abandon the mandatory wearing of her hijab, exercise to her secret "Jane Fonda Workout" videotape and basically be her own woman. She's desperate to cling on to this freedom, to the point that for some time she even holds its importance above that of her daughter's ailing health (Dorsa becomes sick once her teddy vanishes).
The attention to period detail is impressive without ever being rammed down our throats. Anvari is conscientious without resorting to desperate showmanship for effect. There's an element of psychological drama during the first hour too, suggestive of THE BABADOOK in how we grow uncertain of Shideh's mental state ... and in particular her thoughts towards her ever-more-vulnerable-seeming daughter.
But UNDER THE SHADOW steers clear of inviting comparisons to other films for the most part. It builds slowly, almost in kitchen-sink-drama fashion, drawing its viewer in to the world of this strong woman who's determined to live life to her own rules, despite society imposing its own set of laws upon her (in one later scene she's arrested for anxiously running into the streets sans hijab).
Performances are convincing across the board. However, the real star of the show is Anvari: his control over the visuals and the drip-drip pacing of his screenplay suggest he could go on to great things.
If anything, the film is guilty of setting up a premise which is ultimately more gripping than the final-act denouement. The horror is at its strongest while it's still ambiguous. Even so, a couple of fleeting iffy instances of CGI aside, the final twenty minutes are tense stuff.
UNDER THE SHADOW comes to UK DVD courtesy of Precision Pictures.
It looks very good in a 16x9 presentation which appears to respect the original ratio. Certainly, everything looks to be correctly framed. The film is a handsome, arty one anyway, so the strong transfer of its HD source material is most welcome. Solid blacks, vivid colours and defined, detailed images impress throughout.
Farsi audio comes in a satisfyingly even 2.0 mix, with the option of well-written and easily readable English subtitles.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. From there, a scene selection menu allows access to the film via 6 chapters.
Considering the film has been winning plaudits from everyone from The Guardian to Empire magazine, and has been shortlisted as Britain's entry in the "Best Foreign Language Film" category at 2017's Academy Awards, I'm flabbergasted that there are no extras on offer. None.
Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed UNDER THE SHADOW. It treats its audience with respect and builds an intriguing scenario before allowing the frights to start filtering through. If you're looking for monsters and gore, go elsewhere. If, however, you're in search of incremental spooks with a strong political subtext in the meantime, then look no further.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Precision Pictures|