Bending Genre in Under the Shadow
Post by Shivani J. K. Rayat
Film is one of the most popular forms of art in this day and age, from fanatical franchises featuring morally challenged superheroes in worlds that always seem to be ending, to political and socially educational films such as The Big Short and Blackfish, as well as more artistically orientated independents like The Lobster and Under the Skin. And then there are those films which bring into question just how far we can stretch the limits of genre; Babak Anvari’s psychological drama Under the Shadow is one of the very few ‘scary’ films I’ve enjoyed for the simple reason that it does not constrain itself to the rules of a mainstream genre film.
Anvari’s film deals with complex issues around ‘restrictions of freedom’ and ‘not being able to look after your child’ (as Anvari himself alluded to in the Q&A section of his talk at the University of Westminster). But perhaps most importantly it is also concerned with character ‘realism’. This is particularly true in a scene near the beginning which focuses on the family enjoying a meal. The film as a whole is extremely tense, but it was these little moments that created an intimate, and almost intrusive atmosphere.
An idea of invasion is also something that Anvari’s film explores, most notably through the Djinn, the ghostly presence which threatens the mother’s relationship with her daughter. This mythological creature seemed to ‘travel on the wind’, thereby finding its way into the home of the protagonists, which is also being threatened by war, missiles and solitude. At the same time, the female lead is struggling with the oppressive nature of her country and society and the looming fear that she is an unfit mother.
Such themes have also occurred in other psychological dramas. The Babadook, for example, is an Australian film which features a woman whose grief for the death of her husband becomes personified through her son’s book. Another film that features a grieving mother who turns on her children is The Others, which has an M. Night Shyamalan style ending, that I will say no more about.
In his talk, Anvari also spoke very interestingly about ‘world building’ and how more recent films, particularly action/adventure stories, do not take any time to establish the environment that they are set in. A film like Godzilla, for instance, jumps straight into the action and doesn’t give the audience time to catch up. On the other hand, as Anvari pointed out, in an older film like Jurassic Park, ‘you don’t see a dinosaur until about forty minutes in, and it’s not even trying to kill you!’ Under the Shadow builds its world very successfully, while also trying to keep us guessing as to what obstacles the protagonists are going to face next.
When you watch this film (it’s on Netflix by the way), do not expect jump scares or cheap shots to make you fear something around every corner. Consider instead the detailed world, the realistic characters and the terrifying way a safe space turns into something that is no longer a sanctuary. Overall, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an excellent example of a psychological drama that is really worth getting scared over.
Shivani J. K. Rayat, March 2017