As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
I like to think that I am half humanist and half militant atheist. Both parts of me loved this film. It is hard not to get political with this review considering the current state of Aleppo, the Iranian nuclear deals, the incessant Iraqi wars, etc. Then there's the ever-growing Islamophobia and the mistrust of Muslims. I'm going to do my best to keep my opinions in that regard to myself and rather focus on the brilliance of the film itself. However, I cannot objectively review this film without touching the themes of religious belief and oppression which are heavily prevalent throughout.
I could not, with a gun to my head, think of a better-acted role this year than Narges Rashidi‘s portrayal of Shideh. She is a tour de force. She forces us to detest her, pity her, respect her, fear for her, question her, and ultimately care for her. Incredibly earnest acting. There was one scene which really hit home for me. After a tragic near death experience, her daughter wakes whilst in her arms and asks her, “What’s going on?” to which she calmly and caringly responds, “Nothing darling, go back to sleep.” That exact scene was like an excerpt from my own life, where I as a child awoke in my mother’s arms while the ship we were on was sinking. I proceeded to ask my mother, “What’s going on?” to which she replied, “Nothing honey, go back to sleep.” I felt a very real pang in my chest right then, and although that scene may only really feel important or special to me, it’s the fact that she can deliver those lines with the same conviction as my own mother really speaks volumes about her ability as an actress.
But this is a horror film, so let’s stop with the sentimental and get down to the sacrilegious. The film does tend to rely on jump scares, but not in the way that we are used to. There is very little use of special effects or CGI and the spirits (Djinn) are portrayed as little more than wind and sheets. The film builds and bangs, with the latter usually a quick “boo” to help you soil those briefs. There are a few cliches but the film is so “foreign” that these are easily forgivable. Most of the CGI budget was spent on the last few scenes of the films, but the few effects that the film has are put to very good use. The general premise is that of your typical possession film, but the setting, acting, background and secondary themes really make for something fresh.
The film’s themes are heavily centred around social discourse and the common perceptions (or misperceptions) of the role of the woman in Muslim society. Shideh shatters the more common idea of the Muslim housewife and we learn of her past actions as an outspoken activist, which play heavily against her in the aftermath the cultural revolution. Her medical textbook is a wonderful metaphor for how she has to keep hidden that which is truly dear to her. Her disdain for the headscarves and her conservative neighbors, though never directly stated, as well as her calling the stories from the Quran “fairy tales” definitely add to the assertion that she is either an atheist or extremely liberally minded. Either way, she is an independent, modern and self-assured woman, regardless of her political or religious beliefs, and it was great to see such a strong female lead coming out of a country where the general expectation (at least from a Western viewpoint) is that of submissive and subservient women.
The movie is absurdly captivating from start to finish. It has an ever building pressure throughout its entirety, like a coil resisting yet unable to stop the dense existential fear from pressing it down flat. It is a downward spiral so subtle, yet so utterly overwhelming. We know the path the film will take, but we have no idea what to expect when it finally arrives, and that is what makes it fantastic. A definite must watch and full five stars from me. Grab a look at the trailer below.
Afterthought: Why are so many of the acclaimed foreign films that the west enjoys mostly horror films? Troll Hunter, Let the Right One In, I Saw The Devil, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night…all amazing motion pictures and all acclaimed or awarded. Why are we so impressed and beguiled by foreign horror films yet so let down by our own? When was the last western masterpiece? The next Hellraiser? The next Alien? Why don't we produce quality storytelling but instead regurgitate formulaic moneymakers? </rantover>
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