As the Shadow's main character is Claudia (impressive newcomer Anita Kravos) a drifting, unfocused woman in her late thirties. She works at a travel agency in Milan, and is taking Russian in an apparent effort to improve her usefulness at work. Despite keeping her in frame for virtually the entire film, director Marina Spada refuses to let us get to know Claudia, holding us at a distance both physically and emotionally. On the rare occasions that we are allowed to see her interacting with her friends or spending time with a very casual boyfriend, we are always watching from across the street, through a window, or around a closed door. We can see their affection, but hear nothing. And when Claudia talks to her sister, it's clear they're close, but the words they exchange give us very little sense of what Claudia is like inside, apart from a bit cynical about the world around her (a trait she likely shares with much of her generation).

Out of boredom as much as anything else, she attempts to initiate a relationship with her Russian professor (Boris, played by Paolo Pierobon), a native of Ukraine who claims to have once taught Italian at a university in Kiev. Despite -- or, more like, because of -- his refusal to get involved with her (he is, he says, her professor, and it wouldn't be appropriate), the two nevertheless retain an indistinct closeness, and during the summer holidays Boris visits, seemingly interested in rekindling their nascent relationship. It turns out, however, that he wants something from Claudia: His distant cousin Olga (Karolina Dafne Porcari) is coming to visit and needs somewhere to stay for a few days. Utterly unpersuaded by Boris' embarrassingly transparent attempt at seduction, Claudia nevertheless agrees to take Olga in, mostly out of the idle hope that something interesting might happen as a result.

When Olga arrives, she and Claudia fall into a quick, if tentative, friendship. They share an uncommon openness, and each clearly appreciates the other's straightforward ways -- both are sick of guessing what the people around them really want. In many ways, Olga's and Claudia's refusal to be obtuse is reflected in Spada's style. She, too, isn't very interested in misleading, or in creating a pretty façade to obscure the truth. Instead, she sets her camera up and films what goes on before it, rarely bothering to even adjust the framing, no matter what happens with the shot. Often, seated figures appear in very odd proportions, filling only the bottom half of the frame, with just their heads and shoulders visible. It's not until they stand up and move to the back of the frame that we understand why the camera is at that odd angle -- without any adjustments, the original setup has the standing figures perfectly in frame. Despite the film's visual simplicity and total lack of flourish, it is a meticulously detailed piece of work. Just as each shot is carefully planned and laid out from a technical standpoint, every time we're pushed away emotionally, it happens as a result of Spada's insight, and her quiet manipulation.

One might say Spada is obsessed with framing: Her film is full of vertical lines, and rarely a shot goes by that doesn't contain at least one off-center door frame, often with Claudia confined to a corner of the image, carefully enclosed. Most of As the Shadow is made up of medium long shots, a distance that allows Spada to both achieve her crucial emotional distance and enclose Claudia in countless boxes, photographing her through the filters of multiple windows, frames and mirrors. The resulting film is aggressively impersonal, requiring the audience -- as with the films of Spada's countryman Michelangelo Antonioni -- to either accept the distance or contribute our own emotional content.

Perhaps in the end it's Spada's distance that finally draws us in -- knowing so little about the main character makes us desperately curious for clues about her existence, but we're seduced by the film's hypnotic rhythm into simply accepting what passes before us. Somehow all our urgency falls away, and watching the film becomes simply a strange, meditative experience. Even as As the Shadow turns into the lowest-key thriller of all time, the slow pace remains firmly in place. And, eventually, it dawns on us that the answers we want will never come; to Spada's great credit, we find ourselves OK with that.