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Under the Shadow (Sundance Review)

Under the Shadow (Sundance Review)
01.30.2016by: Chris Bumbray
9 10

PLOT: In post--revolution Tehran, a mother (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter (Avin Manshadi) are haunted by a malicious spirit.

REBIEW: While this year’s Midnight selection at Sundance has been wildly inconsistent, one notable exception has been UNDER THE SHADOW. The highly praised debut from Iranian director Babak Anvari, it’s a remarkable, highly poised and atmospheric effort that should generate huge word-of-mouth among genre fans, with many calling it this year’s THE BABADOOK or IT FOLLOWS.

The fact that this is in Farsi and set in Tehran at the height of the Iran-Iraq war gives this an edge a lot of contemporary efforts can’t compete with. Even before anything supernatural kicks in, UNDER THE SHADOW is a fascinating character study. We’re introduced to our feminist heroine Shideh, played by Rashidi, as she applies for readmission to university to complete her medical studies. As she was formerly a radical, she’s told that she’ll never be allowed to study again, dooming her to an unwanted existence as a housewife.

With her doctor-husband away on military service and all the schools closed due to the constant bombings, Shideh has little to do but hang around her apartment, working out to her bootleg Jane Fonda video tapes (she could get arrested if they’re discovered) while her daughter Dorsa plays with a creepy local boy who claims he’s haunted by Djnn, a mythical poltergeist.

Running a tight eighty-four minutes, UNDER THE SHADOWS is a thrilling, fast-paced ride. Anvari’s given this an impressive scope, with dynamic set-pieces, including a brilliant scene where Shideh uses her medical training to save a local man while an unexploded missile hangs ominously over her, threatening to go off at any second.

While definitely a genre effort with plenty of practical scares (CGI is used sparingly), it’s highly character driven. Shideh is a really interesting protagonist, being a modern woman caught up in a world that grows all the more regressive by the day. Not only does she have to worry about the ghosts haunting her and her daughter, but in one clever scene, after she an her daughter escape a deadly phantom, she’s arrested for being in the street minus her hi-jab and threatened with lashes.

All this adds up to a unique yarn. Rashidi’s performance is exemplary, and while much of it was apparently made in Britain, you wouldn’t know it. Anvari’s rightly getting a lot of buzz off his debut, and with Netflix having picked this up for distribution, it’ll no doubt be a cult sensation in the months to come (UPDATE - XYZ and Vertical Entertainment will release it theatrically before it hits streaming). While it delivers plenty of classy, sophisticated scares (there’s absolutely no gore) the insight it offers into the reality of life under a totalitarian government makes it doubly terrifying. Coupled with A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, UNDER THE SHADOW is further proof of a burgeoning Iranian ex-pat liberal cinema. Politics aside, it’s among the most assured feature debuts I’ve seen in a while and a real example of why a festival like Sundance is so important, as it catapults deserving filmmakers like Anvari onto the international scene. Keep your eyes peeled for this one - it’s a winner.

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