Milwaukee Film Festival 2016: Under the Shadow
By Andrea Thompson
It's impossible to avoid comparing the claustrophobic horror offering “Under the Shadow” to “The Babadook,” another movie about a mother teetering on the edge of an abyss comprised of repressed grief. But whereas the mother in “The Babadook” was mourning the loss of her partner's life, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is mourning her own. She was studying to be a doctor in Iran before the revolution, and in the aftermath of '80s Tehran she finds herself unable to complete her studies to become a doctor. Her husband's thriving medical career is the salt in her still open wound, particularly when he seems to have drunk some of the Kool-Aid himself. Soon, he is drafted to the front lines of the Iran-Iraq War, and Shideh is left in their apartment to care for their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in a city under daily siege from bombs, missiles, and visits from potential informants who may disapprove of possessions like VCRs. In the midst of raids that literally bring missiles into their neighbors' homes, Dorsa begins to talk about a malevolent presence in their apartment. As time goes on and their neighbors flee the building, Shideh begins to believe that Dorsa may be right. Soon we and Shideh question what's real and what isn't, and even whether she is waking or dreaming. Are evil spirits called djinn really haunting them and trying to take Dorsa away? Or is it a shared psychosis, triggered by the war and living under a constant state of repression that leaves them-at best-feeling unsettled in their most private spaces? Writer-director Babak Anvari leaves it more of a question than perhaps he should, building a suspenseful slow burn that is a little too slow at times. But he makes masterful use of a time and place that is a hotbed of extreme self-righteousness, where something as basic as a woman's education and choice of clothing are under the microscope. Boy, good thing that doesn't apply anywhere else.