Laughing for No Reason: Some short movie notes

Under the Shadow: Iranian horror set during the Iran-Iraq War. The movie opens with Shideh (Narges Rashidi) being told, by a man sitting under a portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini, that she won’t be able to continue her medical studies because of her political activities. She goes home to an apartment building where the windows are crisscrossed with masking tape in case bombing raids shatter the glass. She fights with her husband about whether she’s unsupportive, taking the disappointment too hard, a bad mother. She exercises to an illegal Jane Fonda tape, with a ferocious neurotic energy familiar to countless tightly-wound, muscled, driven women. And then there’s an air raid and the building’s residents have to huddle in the basement and a little boy says something very disturbing to Shideh’s daughter Dorsa. And the real trouble starts.

The implied criticism of religious repression of women isn’t exactly subtle, but Under the Shadow is strengthened by the fact that it deals with so many “issues.” No one concern predominates. So instead of feeling like a message picture, it feels like reality: Our real lives are shaped by religion and family drama and war, not one at a time but all at once.

Writer/director Babak Anvari’s supernatural chiller bears some similarity to The Babadook: Victor Morton notes, “Both are about a mother and child losing their sanity in a fatherless, high-stress situation, when one of the child’s favorite objects becomes a cursed talisman.”

I thought the movie was at its best when it was replacing standard horror events with ’80s Iranian reality. For example, Shideh runs out of her building in terror, clutching her child. In a normal horror movie she’d run into a monster or the killer or whatever the antagonist is. Here she runs into… the religious police, who jail her for being in the street without a headcovering. There are several moments like this and they all worked for me, genuinely chilling and unexpected. Unfortunately, when the movie was using more standard horror imagery and scenarios it felt, honestly, overfamiliar and merely okay. Definitely worth watching if the subject matter interests you, but maybe not otherwise.

Black Girl (La Noire de…): A pioneering African film, made by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene. Diouana (the introspective, expressive Mbissine Therese Diop) takes a job as a nanny to the children of a white French couple. Things go well while the white family is living in Dakar, but once they move back to Paris, the wife becomes a cartoon shrew and everyone is racist. Lots of striking b&w compositions. This screened at the National Gallery of Art with the short film “Borom Sarret” (The Wagoner), which is a slice of poor Dakar life. Less predictable than Black Girl. Both movies use music really powerfully.

Black Girl does not have the world’s most original plotline. But the ending is powerful and haunting, in part because, unlike so many movies, Black Girl keeps going after the climactic violent event. It shows consequences and aftermath. The little boy with the mask, following the white man through the neighborhood, is unsettling, unexpected, unresolved–and powerful for those exact reasons.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters: What I learned from this artsy mid-’80s meditation on the life and death of Japan’s great lyric fascist: 1. You can know exactly what’s wrong with your terrible plan (the emperor doesn’t even want you to do this! dying isn’t everything!), and write a play about it, and still do it, because knowing is the wrong half of the battle.

2. “We are playing with the same pack of cards, but I have the joker. I have the Emperor.” Or, all reactionaries are either satirists or fools.

Loved this.


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