To paraphrase Talking Heads, life during wartime ain’t no party, especially if you’re stuck in Tehran at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war in the late Eighties. That’s the predicament facing the family at the heart of this nervy little haunter. In addition to the threat of ordnance raining from the sky, there’s also a creepy little orphan who turns up and whispers doom into the preteen head of little Dorsa (the beguiling Manshadi). Mom Shideh (Rashidi) had been planning on resuming her medical studies as soon as the war ends, but word comes down from the revolutionary bigwigs that as punishment for her leftward political leanings, that’s no longer an option. Her husband Iraj (Naderi) is a tad caddish about her curtailed future, but soon enough he’s sent to the front, leaving his wife and daughter to fend for themselves in an apartment building that becomes increasingly forbidding. When a dud missile lodges into the apartment’s ceiling – recalling a strikingly similar unexploded bomb in Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, also set in wartime – fleeting apparitions make their presence known. And then there’s the wizened old crone who lives below them and spins yarns about djinns and worse.
Iranian-born director Anvari ratchets up the suspense to near Babadook levels as mother and child (mostly mom) begin to crack under the strain of Iraqi bombings and the mysterious, aforementioned orphan, who seems to materialize just out of Shideh’s peripheral vision like an omen, or a portent, or worse. Household items vanish, furniture is rearranged when there’s apparently no one there, and a symbolic crack in the plaster mirrors the family’s mental and spiritual undoing (shades of Polanski’s Repulsion).
Make no mistake: This is a horror film right to its core, although the nightmare comes both from without (the war, the state decrees regarding how Shideh must dress in public, even when fleeing incoming missiles) and within (the unknown but entirely evil Middle Eastern djinn). Shideh and Dorsa are living under two terrible shadows, and Anvari makes the chilling most of both.
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