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Under the Shadow

(2016, Anvari)
A film from Iran

"The winds refer to mysterious, ethereal and magical forces which can be anywhere... Where there is fear and anxiety, the winds blow."

Set in 1980s Iran, in the middle of the war with Iraq, Under the Shadow follows Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a young woman that is forbidden from resuming her medical studies after being involved in leftist groups during the revolution. As war intensifies and her husband is called to service, Shideh has to take care of their daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), while also dealing with a mysterious presence that starts haunting them as well as her own fears and insecurities.

One of the explanation that friends and neighbors try to give Shideh is that of "djinns". Djinn's are supernatural creatures mentioned in the Quran, and rooted in pre-Islamic beliefs that can manifest themselves to humans in different forms. The above quote is how a friend of Shideh describes them. "They travel on the wind from place to place until they find someone to possess", says another character. "If they take a personal belonging, something that you treasure, then there's no escape from then."

But even though the film doesn't necessarily hide the presence of whatever is haunting them, you get the notion that, like her friend said, "fear and anxiety" is behind everything. Shideh seems to be more haunted by the preconceptions of society about her role. Her character is interesting for many reasons. I'd venture to say that she's not entirely likable, be it in the way she reacts to her husband's being called to service or how she treats her daughter at times. But what I found interesting is the way the film contrasts her frustrations and insecurities as a woman, an aspiring doctor, a wife, and a mother, with the way that her character is haunted.

There are a couple of jumpscares in the film that I thought were effective, but they are few and far apart. Most of the film is a slow build as we see how the manifestations get worse. It isn't a typical edge-of-your-seat thriller where characters constantly scream and run for their lives, even if there are a few instances of that. The dread is more subtle, the fear is more psychological, and I felt it was more character driven than other similar films. There's also an obvious subtext about the cultural and socio-political status of the country, whose mileage with the viewer may vary.

Anvari's direction is pretty good, with some good to great moments of deft camera handling. The pace is slow, but I never felt it become boring. Rashidi's performance is solid, and Manshadi, although spotty at times, manages to hold her own. I still have some issues with the climatic encounter, and I feel the film does lack a more concrete ending, but I still think the film is a pretty effective psychological thriller that can succeed in creating fear and anxiety.