Under The Shadow (dir. Babak Anvari, 2016) – In post-revolution Tehran, Shideh struggles to cope with the terrors of war and a mysterious evil in her home.
Under The Shadow presents an unnerving haunting beyond the supernatural, in which demons manifest in myth, war and personal trials.
It is the 1980s in Tehran. The Iran–Iraq War has left its citizens living in constant fear. Where there is anxiety, the wind blows and the Djinn follows. With her misgivings of the war at large and her personal struggles at hand, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) has left her door for the demon wide open.
It is easy to understand why. She had been on the way to becoming a doctor, when marriage and childbirth halted her dreams. Her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) meanwhile casts doubt on her career ambitions, encouraging her full commitment to motherhood to her quiet dismay.
When the time finally comes for her to get back on track, things unexpectedly go south. The Cultural Revolution happens, cutting short Shideh’s education and conscripting Iraj to war.
Shideh is left feeling trapped, by expectations of her to be a devoted stay-home wife and mother. The thought of losing her identity to motherhood starts to perturb her. Such societal pressures strain her relationship with her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who herself struggles to deal with a troubled mother and an absent father.
Their insecurities invite the presence of the Djinn, a child-taking creature conjured from a Middle Eastern legend. Trouble brews when neighbours claim truth to Dorsa’s ghostly sightings. Insidious apparitions play on their growing fear, as the stresses of war blur the line between imagination and reality.
Horror films like The Babadook (review) have treaded this territory of childhood monsters before. But Iranian-born director Babak Anvari finds his unique voice amidst atmospheric echoes. His move to shift a familiar ghost story to the compelling settings of his hometown (although filmed in Jordan) pays off to great effect.
Apart from exploring postpartum blues, his feature debut Under the Shadow highlights real social issues in wartime Iran, where fundamentalist legislation and endless combat have cost Tehran years of progress. The layered film sees fear stretch beyond the supernatural into the thought-provoking political.
Repressive edicts rattle nerves when defiant acts prove as dangerous as any monstrous presence. In one heart-pounding scene, Shideh scrambles in haste to hide her VCR, one of many foreign influences prohibited by the authorities. A hovering threat of missiles increases discomfort, where a child has become accustomed to a grimy bomb shelter as her second home.
The many challenges point to a difficult fight ahead, where lurking shadows – both metaphoric and physical – threaten to consume Shideh and her daughter. Yet in face of Shideh’s grit during hardship and her indubitable love for her child, neither the Djinn nor the war stand a chance to shatter her conviction to survive.
Brief glimpses of close encounters offer symbolic revelation than actual shivers. But despite sparing scares, claustrophobia within the time-worn apartment building continually disquiets. Amid gripping suspense, all bets fall easy on the unyielding heroine – to conquer demons in myth, war and personal trials.