The Films of 2016: Under the Shadow

Speaking of horror films, Under the Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari) has been generating healthy buzz since it played at Sundance, and is being hailed as a genre movie with a political conscience.  I ended up catching a late screening of the film last night at IFF Boston.  It’s a haunted-house tale set in Tehran in the mid-1980s, as bombings and air raids cause Iranian civilians to live in a constant state of fear.  On top of this, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) faces more local threats: an aspiring doctor, she is expelled from medical school for leftist activism and is later chastised by a patriarch for leaving the house without her hijab.  (At home, she hides her Betamax player—and her much-prized Jane Fonda workout tape—for fear that a neighbor will turn her into the authorities for owning Western contraband.)  Then, in the wake of a bomb blast that leaves an ominous bulging crack in their ceiling, Shideh and her young daughter Dorsa begin to experience strange goings-on in their apartment.  Dorsa is convinced that the house is under the spell of a djinn, a kind of evil genie out of the Arabian Nights; initially skeptical, Shideh begins to worry that her daughter may be right.

Under the Shadow succeeds most as a film about the day-to-day pressures faced by Iranian women living under an ideological regime that subjects them to constant scrutiny.  This comes to be the governing metaphor of the film: the djinn that haunts Shideh’s house is a manifestation of her oppression, even going so far as to literally echo the voices (both spoken and unspoken) of everyone who has told her she is unfit to be a doctor, a mother, a wife, a person.  The film effectively dramatizes the paranoia, micro-aggression, and petty conflict that slowly destroy people living within authoritarian societies.  As a horror movie, it’s considerably less effective; it relies heavily on the kinds of cheap jump scares with which, say, The Eyes of My Mother (a very different type of horror film) can afford to dispense.  It’s also on the nose in ways that, say, The Babadook (a very similar type of horror film) wasn’t.  We don’t need to see Shideh rescue her daughter from the suffocating folds of a ghost’s hijab to get the points that Under the Shadow is trying to make.  That might be one of the underlying problems with the film: its agenda gets laid onto the film with too heavy a hand.  When it comes to horror cinema, sometimes the political is best left unconscious.   

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