What are you afraid of?
Didn’t you see them?
Don’t be silly they don’t exist.
But you said you saw the lady too.
That final line is what elevates Under The Shadow from a simple, stylistic supernatural story into a tight psychological supernatural thriller set in the 1980s during the height of the Iran Iraq war. Sideh is a modern woman and with her husband they have a little girl called Dorsa. They met at university when they were both studying medicine, but then then Sideh got involved in politics. The cultural revolution happened and now she is trying to gain her place back at uni to finish her studies but fails to do so. Her husband a doctor is conscripted to the front line. She decides to stay in Tehran despite her husband’s pleading that she go stay with his parents. A missile hits the apartment block, her neighbour’s start to flee and as soon as decides to do the same her daughter can’t find her beloved doll. She promises her daughter they will leave just as soon as she finds the doll and then things go bump in the night…!
What makes Under The Shadow so powerful is that it plays to real life fears of; other people, neighbours, grief, loss, insomnia, maternal love. Fear is multi layered here – fear of the independent woman (she’s stopped by the religious police and told we have morals now not like before), ostracised as a radical from university, then neighbour’s fear her as she’s modern and her husband treats her as an equal and then there is fear of others – we are not the same. All is this shot against a backdrop of a war – fear of others in a national sense. Fear of war itself. What’s interesting is even though this is set in the 1980s it’s social commentary is rooted firmly in the 21st century; fear your neighbour, the foreigner, the stranger amongst us. Horror in the 1970s – Salem’s Lot, Children of the Corn Field was all demonic but a reflection of the destruction of the family unit. The 1980s the modern, independent woman was painted as the slut and slashed and then the 1990s well just not feeling safe. And now this is brought up to date – we’re just simply afraid and afraid of others neighbour’s, individuals, because they are different. Post Brexit this is all very thought provoking. Throw into the mix the little details in the film such as those living in war zones sleep fully dressed in case the sirens sound during the night and they have to flee. This film shocks and provokes at every level.
This film holds its nerve and builds the suspense. The shocks will have you peering through your interlaced fingers or knocking knees with the person sitting next to you – well that’s how I watched most of it. The last 20 mins descends into a 1970s pastiche of horror but the ending – oh the very last 5 minutes – makes the previous final 20 minutes worth it.
This is a must see and shows Iranian filmmaking just keeps producing excellent, thought provoking films. A proper psychological supernatural thriller with a good narrative and under 1hr 30 mins in length. How you see it depends on your perspective and we all have our own truths. Is seeing believing or is it all in the mind?
Under The Shadow is released in cinemas across the UK on Friday 30 September.
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