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Reviews: "Desierto" and "Under the Shadow"

by Nathaniel R

Jeffrey Dean Morgan & Gael García Bernal in "Desierto"

Two more Oscar submissions are now in limited release in the US: Mexico's Desierto and the UK's Tehran set film Under the Shadows. Both are what you might call horror films though one suspects only the latter would accept the label. 

We'll go anywhere with Gael García Bernal, who has blessed us with a number of fine road trip / travel movies in his career like Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries , and The Loneliest Planet. In short, he's the perfect choice as a protagonist if you want us to sign up for a gruelling journey...

In Desierto he plays Moises, a man travelling illegally to the US from Mexico with a stuffed animal present for his child in his backpack. He's instantly coded as a noble stand-up guy in a movie that paints all of its characters with such broad strokes that it feels at first less like poor writing than purposefully bold minimalism. But that storytelling tactic come with a substantial price once the plot kicks in. The illegal immigrants are thrown from their intended course and end up crossing a dangerous landscape on foot where an evil redneck (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has taken border patrol into his own hands. 

That's the nice way of putting it.

The more accurate way of putting it would be that they're in the territory of a serial killer who loves hunting Mexicans once they cross into the US. While Jonas Cuarón has some of his father's (Alfonso's Cuaron) gift for smart framing and gripping visual beats, they're in the service of a deeply unpleasant misfire of a movie. Xenophobic homicidal impulses require the dehumanization of the "other," psychologically speaking, but the movie's sketchy characterizations only further rob all the characters of humanity. These are just targets on a shooting range. One suspects that Desierto wants to be a spare but majestic condemnation of irrational hatred and diabolical "patriotism" with the beauty and brutality of a desert landscape as its backdrop. And yet, despite Cuaron's technical skill and a mechanically exciting battle between the film's two stars in the finale act, Desierto plays like a snuff film rather than a message movie, the camera never skipping the chance to show a killing in grisly detail. (And if you're a dog lover, you absolutely 100% with no exceptions must avoid the movie). D

Under the Shadow
Oscar used to be extremely rigid about foreign language film submissions, requiring that the languages spoken had to be indigenous to the country sending the film in question. They've long since given up that rule which didn't jibe well with art. Immigrants and children of immigrants can and do create art in whatever country they eventually call home. So here we have a film in Farsi that takes place in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq wars of the 80s and it's submitted by the UK because it's made by a British/Iranian director Babak Anvari. It's his feature debut.

Under the Shadow begins rather like a tetchy domestic drama with political undertones. We meet a married couple with a young daughter who met years before in medical school. The wife Shideh (played by Iranian German actress Narges Rashidi) was never able to complete her studies due to the political winds of Post-Revolution Iran and she's frustrated to be merely a housewife. When the husband leaves for a government post the film shifts gradually (and unexpectedly if you went in cold as I did) into a creepy horror film as the daughter begins to see things that aren't there. As you may well guess Shideh herself, who keeps denying that "Djinns" (aka evil spirits) exist, starts seeing them too. 

While comparisons to The Babadook are not particularly unfounded, Under the Shadow is less impactful and original on the metaphoric level that can help horror films really transcend their genre. Debut films often show their influences too heavily as if the fresh set of eyes behind the camera hasn't quite removed the lens of other films and Under the Shadow is no exception. Anvari makes great use of this highly specific time and setting -- the air raids are always unnerving and one sequence in which Shideh runs into the empty streets of Tehran in a panic is just terrific. His use of a hijab that functions not unlike the old hoary white-sheeted ghost is spectacular - but there are a few too many cheaper contemporary horror tricks that betray a lack of confidence in how creepy the film already is without them. But this is a very solid debut and quite a calling card all the same. B

Oscar Chances: Though Under the Shadow's genre elements aren't really Oscar's jam, they might go for Desierto. I was unable to get past my involuntary revulsion while watching it but perhaps other viewers will admire the filmmaking enough to respond to it? 

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Reader Comments (9)

I caught UNDER THE SHADOW this weekend and (while I normally hate them) it has a doozy of a jump scare. Also: Jane Fonda workout video bootlegs!

October 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

I'm shocked at how much I loved Under the Shadow. I found it both scarier, more enveloping and more satisfying than The Babadook (which I also liked!). And even better (or just-as-well) acted.

On that note, FYC Narges Rashidi for Best Actress. It's amazing how she can hit all the required genre beats but still maintain a naturalistic, restrained yet psychologically dense performance.

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