Despite the variety of its international credentials, Britain-based Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari’s feature debut starts from a context of place and time specific enough to be clearly stated in the film’s opening title cards: the Iran-Iraq war which, lasting from 1980 to 1988, became the longest running war in the 20th century. The movie, however, starts not in the actual battlefield, but in the more unbalanced battle one can fight in a non-democratic government’s office, where Shideh (Narges Rashidi) asks for another chance to pursue a degree in medicine. In that brief conversation in front of a clear wide window, Shideh’s past as someone loosely engaged with left wing movements comes out as an impassable obstacle for the moral code of the new regime, despite her persistence. “You’re never going back to University”, the man says, and in the distant background an explosion covers the peaceful view of Tehran with a cloud of black smoke. Shideh’s future’s been suddenly blocked by a present that cannot overcome the past, and one can’t help but wonder how she feels about it.
It’s a prologue clearly stated in the simplicity of its mise en scène, which sets the tone for the rest of the film: the (f)actual war, the (f)actual city, the (f)actual testimony of public life in 1980s Iran will be kept in the background, seen at a distance through the transparent glass of personal, subjective experiences. The focus of interest here is Shideh, a young mother whose aspirations have been briskly interrupted by the sudden change in the country’s political reality and who now sees herself trapped in an apartment with her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), as her husband is away, begging her to leave a city under fire and find somewhere safe. Cornered by all sorts of unseen threats from the off-screen space (which can go from a hijab-like ghost-scarf to a missile that failed to explode), it’s only natural that Shideh’s personal drama be told as a horror story.
There are, however, different types of horror, both in film and in life. At first, Under the Shadow adheres to a sub-genre of arthouse horror that’s become a festival staple in recent years and that’s sprinkled examples in different places across the globe – one of the best of the pack comes from Brazil: Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s feature debut Hard Labor (2011), recently released in the U.S., four years after its premiere at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight. In this subgenre, the conventions of horror slowly creep into apparent brechtian social observation (often in tableux) as manifestations of the pressure the off-screen space creates (mostly through sound) on a seemingly air-tight private environment, often sprinkled with kitsch elements that at first work as a manifestation of what Alain Badiou calls “the desire for the West” (which applies to Iran just as it applies to Brazil – theoretically, a Western country), and later as an explosion of repressed mysticism (or, in the case of western films, most often sexuality, as in Bradley Rust Gray’s disappointing Jack and Diane, 2012) as a sign of authenticity.
And here we are, in distant 1980s Iran, yet so familiar territory: an apartment surrounded with mysterious neighbors, a little girl who relives memories from old mystic tales that had been promptly subsumed by her mother’s modern desires, the old engagement with left wing utopia coming back to haunt their sleep, and a Jane Fonda exercise video tape. For a relative festival hit, as its passage on Sundance seems to indicate, Under the Shadow is a movie we’ve all seen too many times before. The specificity of place and time seems to be what buys the movie its place in the sun, but, dwarfed by the craft-oriented generic approach to genre, it ends up as one more manifestation of how the festival circuit, and the filmmakers who cater to them, often echoes Pierre Bourdie and Loïc Wacquant’s words in On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason: “Cultural imperalism rests on the power to universalize particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition by causing them to be misrecognized as such.” In the movie, horror is not the specific expression of a general experience of the world; it is the specificity of the world in service of a generic idea of what a festival oriented, art house horror film should do. Texture is bent by an all too voluntary desire to adhere to a certain protocol of new world cinema, of which the well-crafted boo-scares and the persistence of the conventions of subjective storytelling as a shortcut to Polanski’s psychological investigations are only two of the many, many symptoms.
And through a set of conventions and the prompt dedication to showcase savoir faire of the genre, the longest running war of the 20th century is suddenly turned into common place. What’s frustrating about Under the Shadow is not merely its desire to simply be an ordinary psychological thriller – that could be a waste, considering the dormant material at hand, but hardly a crime. What’s frustrating is that the question one can’t help but ask in the first scene remains largely unadressed: how does Shideh feel about the whole thing? The movie glances at the character’s psychology for narrative convenience, but this subjectivity seems to be treated as just another item the movie has to cross out in its myopic reading of a recipe for success. In the end, Shideh is not very different from the western agenda, the savoir faire, the repressed mysticism or the Jane Fonda video tape… she’s just another thing the movie passes by, rather than dives in.
“Everybody was involved with politics back then”, she says, and while the answer reads as a necessary compromise, it doesn’t resonate in the film as a source of pride or regret, because it doesn’t resonate as anything at all. After all, Under the Shadow seems to be moved and praised for the very same thing its protagonist is, in some way, being punished for: doing what everybody else seems to be doing right now. The desire for dissension – whether it’s politics or art – is now seen as an opportunity for consensus, and cinema once again shies away from being all it can really be: a propeller of new worlds. If cultural imperialism is precisely the assumption that takes what’s singular and punctual as general and all-encompassing, it’s rather ironic that the only possible answer to that dilemma comes from ignoring the distinctions in who’s at the receiving end, whether it’s Iran, Brazil or Turkey, to whom Badiou wrote after the 2013 uprising, and share this plea that I now repeat out loud, so I can hear it in my own voice: “(…) the greatest favor you can do for us is to prove that your uprising is taking you to a different place from ours”.