Friday, 1 September 2017

Cinema Scent: Under The Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari; 2016)

Watching Babak Anvari’s superb Under The Shadow reminded me that, more often than not, the way film-makers choose to depict smell is by showing their characters’ reactions to it. Eyes lift with pleasure. Faces crinkle with incomprehension. Bodies double up with disgust. And the reason Anvari prompted this thought is that, unless my memory fails me, I don't think there’s a single moment in his movie when the actors are confronted by the olfactory aspect of their world. As Under The Shadow, in many ways, slots into the horror genre - which invariably resorts to visceral imagery - its apparent avoidance of odour adds to its originality.

This scent-less atmosphere is particularly curious because, horror conventions aside, there's something about this very story - malevolent spirits haunting a Tehran-based family during the bombings of the Iran-Iraq War - which appears to invite fearsome odours. As the first crack quite literally appears in Shideh’s apartment, we expect her to start complaining about noxious fumes. But there is no such moment. And when she finally comes face-to-empty-space with the chador-clad djinn, we're convinced her eyes will cloud over with revulsion. But clearly, this poltergeist doesn't employ olfactory tactics.

Perhaps the whole point is that, like the oppressive Islamic regime, this spirit is attempting to suck all the sensory life out of Shideh’s existence. As its power grows, it seems to dim all surrounding light and reduce everyday noise; the apartment block’s other residents have fled to safer territories, causing Shideh’s environment to become increasingly eerie. Indeed, in a climactic scene, the ghost envelopes Shideh in a giant chador-canopy and starts pulling her into a pool of tactile, inky blackness, a substance in which presumably no sights, sounds or smells could survive. And when Shideh manages to escape - precocious daughter by her side - we see her driving - where else? - towards the countryside, a setting in which the djinn’s deathly influence will not be able to reach her. A space in which to breathe.

For more Cinema Scent reviews, please click here.

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