Blu-ray Review

Limited Edition Blu-ray Review: Under the Shadow (Dir. Babak Anvari, 2016)

In Two & Two (2011) – Babak Anvari’s BAFTA-nominated short allegorical film – a teacher (Bijan Daneshmand) attempts to re-educate his male pupils with some basic arithmetic, claiming that what they have always been taught is no longer true. The writer-director packs quite the punch with very little exposition and a whole lot of nuance when depicting the absurdity of an authoritarian regime/dictatorship. Which all bodes well when your next film – and first feature – is an effective little horror (and would become BAFTA award-winning in its own right). It is also a lovely touch to have that same actor play the University Dean who is responsible for shattering Shideh’s dreams of becoming a Doctor.

Under the Shadow is set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and Shideh (Narges Rashidi) can no longer study medicine having been removed for her political beliefs. We are never party to what exactly her transgression is but suffice to say with the mention of ‘radical left groups’ she was – and probably still is – against the war that is currently waging in her country.

Once her chador is removed, we can ‘see’ some of her transgressions. Her hair cut (in a bob style), dress (westernised), and her autonomy around her home; the partnership with her husband, exercising to Jane Fonda. she’s also the only woman in the building who drives. This is a ‘modern’ woman, oppressed by external tradition and reduced to the confines of her four walls, and even those are not so secure with the shelling, daily explosions and air raids which can send residents into a panic at any given moment.

When her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) receives his draft notice, Shideh is left with her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) as, one by one, all her neighbours pack up and move onto safety. The exacerbating factor a shell crashing through the roof of their building, killing the elderly resident within and leaving a gaping hole. The hole is covered with a sheet which appears to undulate in the wind like a bodily organ, flapping in and out like a heartbeat. A visual metaphor of a damaged culture, while the cracks in the ceiling – it can be argued – relate to Shideh’s psyche. Ever increasingly isolated, Shideh and Dorsa begin to experience things which may be the product of a child’s imagination or something altogether more supernatural.

Djinn is a malevolent spirit which has its history in Early Arabia and then later in Islamic mythology and theology. An entity that travels on the wind until it finds somebody to possess. Often dismissed as a superstitious belief, the spirit is reported to enjoy the souls of children (much like Krampus in European culture, or el Cuco in Latin America). It may explain Dorsa’s fever or not, after all Shideh was also once a child. Evil wants to hurt them alleges one neighbour while another, Mrs. Fakur (Soussan Farrokhnia), attempts to allay her friend’s fear: “people can convince themselves of anything if they want to”.

Tight framing adds to the oppressive atmosphere as mother and daughter’s fear and anxiety builds. Tension is slow-burning, and jump scares are few and far between yet effective when they do occur. There’s no score (music is only played during opening and closing credits) so is reliant upon diegetic noise and whistling winds. We’re never sure of the time of day given the constantly closed curtains and disturbed sleep patterns.

What appears to be mere moments gives the impression of hours. As people leave we can assume the passing of days and weeks yet the costumes of the leads mostly remain the same. Natural and artificial also play havoc with this, along with the production design: one location, open doors, hallways, and reflections in the television mean the constantly moving camera plays tricks with the eyes – was that something moving or not? Shideh’s lip is bruised from the constant biting, insecurity, anxiety, stress. Like all amazing genre films – nothing is ever quite how they appear and this film is all the better for it building beautifully the general sense of unease.

It seems apt that when she is preparing to fight, Shideh’s weapon of choice is a pair of scissors – as if tethered to a more domesticated past, her own mother’s apron strings or the chador in this instance. While the malevolent being appears to be set on persecution – even referring to the character as a ‘whore’ and ‘bad parent’ – it’s important to remember that Djinn is not inherently evil or good, and this entity could, at some point, be Shideh’s mother from beyond the grave.

A matriarch disappointed that her daughter will no longer practice medicine but needs to save her by forcing her to leave the building. Think back to the picture frame which houses Shideh’s mother’s portrait, the fractured glass obscuring the image within, it now laying down on the shelf hidden from view – but before that, the draped material serving as a backdrop in the photo is identical to the chador the entity embodies itself within. This reading further strengthens the mother-daughter links throughout, and the expectations a patriarchy levels at women, generally, but more so during the kind of regime in Tehran of the 80s.

As a first feature, Under the Shadow wears its influences well: Polanski’s apartment trilogy (Repulsion [1965], Rosemary’s Baby [1969], The Tenant [1976]) with a sprinkling of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water via a domestic social realist drama in the ilk of Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi. It’s a rich and visually arresting film which checks all of the above as well as featuring, at its heart, a really affecting horror fable. A 1980s Tehran-set horror film filmed entirely in Farsi – the first of its kind.

Finally, it has been given the kind of release it deserves courtesy of Second Sight that includes plenty of extra features, including five new interviews with the filmmaker, cast and crew, as well as a lively commentary between Director Anvari and film critic Jamie Graham, in which every aspect of the film’s genesis, production and release is covered.


Two & Two (8:48) – Babak Anvari’s BAFTA-nominated short film shown in its entirety. It’s the one extra which can be watched before the main feature.

Escaping the Shadow (23:53) – A long interview with Anvari who begins with his own childhood nightmares growing up in 80s Iran before his move to Britain. He talks at length about the filmmaking process, his cast, shooting in Jordan and expands upon things mentioned in the commentary. He’s a delightful interviewee, and while it is not the most imaginatively filmed featurette, Anvari’s charisma shines through.

Within the Shadow (12:52) – Star of Under the Shadow, Narges Rashidi discusses her own childhood in Iran and Germany and career now she is LA based. She describes the film as a ‘beautiful gift’, and again, static camera and a by-the-book interview reveals an excitable and rather lovely person.

Forming the Shadow (16:11) – Lucan Toh and Oliver Roskill talk all things ‘producer’, how they met Babak, the script, the film’s potential and their brief disappointment at not having to sell the film when it premiered at Sundance. A lot of their anecdotes are repeated in the commentary track.

Shaping the Shadow (13:29) – Anvari’s close collaborator and DoP Kit Fraser talks about his involvement from before the script was even written.

Limited Edition Contents – This set is limited to just 2000 copies, comes in a rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Christopher Shy and with a soft cover book with new essays by Jon Tovison and Daniel Bird (unavailable at time of review). Plus behind-the-scenes photos, concept illustrations, and a poster with new artwork.

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: The Colour of Pomegranates (Dir. Sergei Parajanov, 1968)

There are two versions of The Colour of Pomegranates to choose from on disc one of the Second Sight limited edition box set. The Armenian version (“Parajanov’s cut) was restored – explained in the introductory intertitles – from the original camera negative provided by Gosfilmofond in Russia, in addition to the 35mm dupe negative held by the National Cinema Centre of Armenia. The Russian version (“Yutkevich’s cut) is presented “for posterity” using the original camera negative. For the purposes of this review, the Armenian version will be the one referred to, it is after all Sergei Parajanov’s vision which deserves to be seen uncut.

Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, born Harutyun Sayatyan, (1712-1795) is the subject of The Colour of Pomegranates and although not a typical biopic, it does approach Sayatyan’s life in linear order from his birth into a wool-dyeing family, his education in literature by the Armenian Church; to his marriage, subsequent widowerhood and his monastic life in Haghpat before his death through a series of non-narrative visually poetic frames. The most significant aspects of the poet’s life are depicted through detailed tableaux, combining colour, costume and music within an extraordinary mise-en-scéne. Parajanov used a static camera so every scene resembles a painting with a theatricality to the performances – which renders the 4K scan and colour grading beautifully naturalistic despite the overt artifice within each frame. One could argue against the film’s accessibility but it is easy to follow, rich in metaphor, symbolism and allegory that its historical and biographical basis within Armenian culture means it is deeply resonant on a universal level.

“In this healthy and beautiful life only I have been made to suffer. Why is that so?”

Only when looking into Sergei Parajanov’s life does it also becomes apparent – and the disc extras help hugely in this – that TCOP isn’t just about Sayat Nova. The Georgian-born Armenian Parajanov was considered a controversial director of the Soviet era and yet is now regarded as one of the greatest masters of cinema. After seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), the inspired filmmaker changed his artistic method and, in 1964, made Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors in this new style to international acclaim, while at home its aesthetic and ideology was attacked and promptly banned. Even when Parajanov moved back to Armenia from Russia, it made little difference. Russian censors deemed …Pomegranates inappropriate, claiming it did not reflect Sayat Nova’s (who had been dead some 174 years at that point) life, renamed it and instigated a trial and imprisonment. Parajanov was jailed for five years with a whole host of vague charges levelled at him including suspected homosexuality, illegal antiques trading, incitement of suicide… he was forbidden from making films for the next 15 years.

The Colour of Pomegranates is a unique and fascinating achievement and it’s easy to see its inspiration in the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Tarsem Singh’s work. Some may call it obtuse but even with its limited use of language, it is glorious in content, colour and cinematography – one of those films you should see before you die. This luxurious box set is, aptly, as rich in content as the film itself. Second Sight have packed the limited edition with extras which enhances (and informs) the experience.


Parajanov’s Cut: The Armenian version of the film (80 mins) – complete with an annotated commentary by James Steffen, author of The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, and advisor of the new restoration.

Yutkevich’s Cut: The Russian version of the film (70 mins). This has an annotated commentary by Levon Abrahamyan.

Disc 2

Kyiv Frescoes (14:36) – new 2K restoration, accompanied by an annotated commentary by Daniel Bird. During 1965, Parajanov worked on these screen tests, when the film was cancelled and production halted indefinitely the filmmaker took his screen tests and made them into a short film which is a celebration of the great patriotic war.

Pomegranates Rediscovered (8:38) – a short film describing the restoration process, the presentation of negatives, colour grading and the 4K scan. Presented by Cecilia Cenciarelli of Cineteca Di Bologna, this is really interesting, particularly with the split screen comparison showing the amount of work it took to reproduce this gorgeous film.

Free Parajanov! (11:39) – An audio interview with Tony Rayns which plays over stills from the film. In it the critic discusses how he discovered Parajanov and the first screening he attended of The Colour of Pomegranates.

The World is a Window: The Making of The Colour of Pomegranates (75:58) – This in depth documentary is enlightening, if a little dry in places as four contributors; scholars James Steffen and Karla Oeler, photographer Yuri Mechitov and cultural anthropologist Levon Abrahamyan discuss the making of the film amid the political climate.

Memories of Sayat Nova (31:38) – Short subtitled film by Levon Grigoryan from 2006. The most interesting aspect is that the film states that it is “impossible to restore Sayat Nova” and contains grainy footage from the then finished film (which would then end up as a purple-hued negative as seen in a previous extra). That version was shorter, the full cut never destined to be restored.

Parajanov: A Requiem (59:06) – A short documentary from 1994 featuring the filmmaker – an extremely happy delight of a man – who recounts the casting process of the film, his thoughts on being a director (they can never be trained, “it is a gift from the womb”). He discusses his time in prison and presents footage from his earlier films, shows the exhibits which would become part of the Parajanov Museum. The last third holds footage from the Venice Film Festival (1988) and Istanbul Film Festival (1989) where the filmmaker introduces his film. At the latter, he rather poignantly declares he “would like to die after this.” He passed the following year.

120-page limited edition book – this features an introduction by Martin Scorsese, archive material, new writing, costume designs, storyboards and original literary script (unavailable for review).