Under the Shadow [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (26th February 2020).
The Film

BAFTA Film Award (Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer): Babak Anvari, Emily Leo, Lucan Toh, and Oliver Roskill (winner) and Outstanding British Film of the Year: Babak Anvari, Emily Leo, Lucan Toh, and Oliver Roskill (winner) - BAFTA Awards, 2017

In the late 1980's at the height of the Iraqi-Iranian War of the Cities with Tehran under threat of bombing by Sadam Hussein's forces, housewife Shideh (My Prince. My King.'s Narges Rashidi) seeks control over her life by trying to permission to continue her studies in medical school, but her participation in left wing factions during the country's Cultural Revolution earlier in the decade "have consequences" barring her from a university-educated career. She has come to resent her husband Iraj (Bright's Bobby Naderi) who was not only allowed to continue his education but is also about to report to the Front as part of the yearly conscription as a medic. Despite reports about possible bombings, Shideh rejects Iraj's suggestion that she and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) would be better off staying in the country with his mother, electing instead to remain in their apartment building even as others including the landlords are preparing to flee. The new noises of soldiers in the street and the unsettling settling of the apartment building (particularly after an unexploded missile hits the apartment above and cracks her ceiling) unnerve Shideh, and the last thing she needs is Dorsa having nightmares about child-stealing djinn the girl claims to have learned about from young Mehdi (Karam Rashayda), the refugee nephew of the landlords (Aram Ghasemy and Ray Haratian) who they claim has been mute since he witnessed his parents killed. Despite the increasingly shaky local situation, it is Dorsa who refuses to leave when her doll vanishes, and Shideh refuses to believe the neighbors' claims that djinn will steal a personal item of a victim they wish to possess until she starts seeing apparitions herself; but is there really a supernatural presence inside her apartment or is she cracking under the strain?

A sort of Persian take on The Babadook (or more accurately Wes Craven's New Nightmare which has been pointed out as a heavy influence on the former film) by way of 's masterful In Syria, a non-supernatural film set in war-torn Damascus in which a housewife fights to defend her home from soldiers and looters as much as to control those inside barricaded with her, Under the Shadow is at its most novel in the historical setting and its most familiar in the realizations of the supernatural (the djinn having earlier figured largely into unimaginative genre works like Wishmaster, Djinn, and the Turkish component of the dire international folklore anthology The Field Guide to Evil). With such material, particularly in light of a surge in female-centered horror films of late, success hinges heavily on characterization and performance; and the film is carried effortlessly by Rashidi who manages to remain sympathetic even at her character's most petulant turns. Although cultural and institutional female oppression and the madness they can breed looms throughout, the film never loses sight of Shideh as an individual, whether she is claiming ignorance about her own motivations for participating in the revolution, refusing to question the role of her proud mother's death in her desire to continue her studies, or arguing over the phone about her fitness as a mother with someone who might be her husband or a demonic projection of her own psyche; furthermore, the child-in-peril aspect is not the usual cheap scare ploy even during the rote climactic physical confrontation with the supernatural (in which there is not only the question as to whether Shideh really knows her child but whether the girl would be better off with an apparition the girl perceives as more caring). In addition to the aforementioned inspirations, director Babak Anvari seem as far flung as Repulsion and Don't Look Now (or possibly Dark Water's distillation of certain imagery).
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Video

Digitally-lensed and finished, Under the Shadow – previously released in the United Kingdom as a barebones DVD (and currently only available in the United States on physical media as such) – looks spectacular on Second Sight's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.40:1 widescreen Blu-ray which replicates the brownish/orange-ish eighties Kodak film tones of the film's production design while detail remains impressive even in some of the darker scenes. Although the film can be viewed stateside in high definition on Netflix, this Region Free Blu-ray from Second Sight should be the way to go for fans of the film.
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Audio

While the Netflix version of the film includes the option of a fairly good English dub (knowing that this film was a British co-production, I was initially fooled while watching it with that track selected as the default option on my streaming service), the Blu-ray features only the original Farsi track in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo downmix. The latter track capably conveys the conservative horror sound mix, but the surround track better conveys the little sounds in depth and distance. Optional English subtitles are available.
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Extras

New to the Blu-ray edition is an audio commentary with writer/director Babak Anvari, moderated by journalist Jamie Graham in which he discusses the autobiographical aspects of his childhood in Tehran when the djinn were scarier than the bombs, the influence of Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" of films and the works of Guillermo del Toro (the unexploded bomb in the top floor apartment calling to mind The Devil's Backbone, the themes of female oppression and the home as female space, as well as the challenge of finding a Persian-speaking cast that could act in a British production shot in Jordan (Rashidi was recommended by Homeland's Navid Negahban), and getting permission from Jane Fonda to use her famous exercise video in the film. Also included is "Two & Two" (8:48), director Anvari’s BAFTA Award nominated short film, the notoriety of which opened up doors for him to get his feature film off the ground. "Escaping the Shadow" (23:53) is a video interview with Anvari who covers some of the same ground as the commentary but also wanting to mix the Iranian socio-realist cinema and the horror genre for the film. "Within the Shadow" (12:52) is an interview with actress Rashidi who also grew up during the period in Iran before her family moved to Germany. She recalls the strange normality that set in after so many years of threats, becoming involved in the film, and needing to phonetically write out the Farsi dialogue since she could speak it but could no longer read it. "Forming the Shadow" (16:11) is an is an interview with producers Lucan Toh and Oliver Roskill who also discuss how the BAFTA nomination of Anvari's film made the idea of a Farsi-language film set in a historical period setting for wide release suddenly seemed possible, as well as the challenges of mounting the production in Jordan and finding additional funding sources. Lastly, "Shaping the Shadow" (13:29) interview with cinematographer Kit Fraser who stresses the importance of social realism in the look of the film which extended not only to the sets but also the camerawork, restricting movement and composition to that which was organic to the period of filmmaking as well.
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Packaging

Not provided for review, but included in this limited edition of 2,000 copies is a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Christopher Shy and a softcover book with new essays by Jon Towlson and Daniel Bird, behind-the-scenes photos and concept illustrations, and poster featuring the new artwork.

Overall

Novel in its historical setting but familiar in his plotting and realization of supernatural events, Under the Shadow succeeds nonetheless on the basis of its directorial restraint and strong characterization and central performance from Narges Rashidi.

 


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