Babak Anvari’s directorial debut presents a story of war, societal expectation and personal demons which are every bit as frightening as what is lurking in the shadows…
In the midst of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is left alone with her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in their Tehran apartment building after her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is drafted by the army and sent to the frontlines of the conflict. Shideh is struggling following the recent death of her mother and her dismissal from her medical college after some involvement with leftist groups during the revolution. Crushed that she cannot become a doctor, a future prospect that was a source of great pride to her late mother, she stubbornly remains in her Tehran flat with her daughter against the advice of her fleeing neighbours and her husband. With frequent raids and the neighbourhood on high alert for missile strikes, it is initially easy for Shideh to overlook some strange occurrences in her home and the inexplicable disappearance of her daughter’s favourite doll.
Under the Shadow is a chilling, thought-provoking horror film that uses its slow and gradual narrative build-up to introduce the political climate in 1980s Iran; a dangerous breeding ground of terror and strict law enforcement for anyone deemed subversive under the post-revolution government. The eerie whistling of the wind is a feature throughout the film and a clear reflection of building societal fear as well as the fear experienced by mother and daughter as they are told stories of evil spirits known as ‘Djinn’ that travel on the wind.
Anvari presents this small family as different from the offset. Shideh is a more Westernised woman; she watches recorded tapes of Jane Fonda exercise videos on a VCR that she hides in a cabinet, she removes her hijab as soon as her front door is closed and she is the only woman in her tower of flats that drives. A run-in with the law when she fails to fully cover herself in public provides the second indication of her subversion in the oppressive social milieu. She is confronted with the possibility of the lash for what she has done and this offers the audience a reason as to why she may be the target of the ancient Middle-Eastern supernatural forces, be them external or from within her own psyche as a torn Westernised woman caught up in a stifling world and a frightening war.
The evil, haunting presence around which the film’s horror plot is based is without question a projection of the protagonist’s trauma and in this way Under the Shadow is evocative of Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook. Both Shideh and the single mother Amelia in The Babadook have locked away – in both a literal and figurative sense – a source of pain to them. Whilst Amelia hides away her late husband’s possessions, Shideh locks up her medical book gifted to her by her mother. She appears to lock up the shame she feels and hopes that, with it, she can contain her belief that she is a disappointment to her mother and daughter.
Both plots see the death of a loved one triggering the beginning of a traumatising and personal attack from an unknown force, met head-on by mother and child following initial ignorance on the part of the mother. There are even uncanny visual echos to The Babadook when Shideh incites a sudden and frenzied fight with her daughter and later wields a kitchen knife, looking into the empty room awaiting the appearance of an unknown monster.
The film excellently conveys a claustrophobic atmosphere in which the young Avin Manshadi delivers a very strong performance as a young girl in the throes of a fever that will not break; again, clearly a nod to political affairs and the physical state of Iran. The camerawork effectively confuses its audience on more than one occasion, tilting the image in the frame and sometimes thrashing about and looking in all directions to disorientate the viewer and blur the line of nightmare and reality that Shideh is experiencing. Narges Rashidi brings a very tormented and torn character to the screen; a woman who slowly unravels in front of us under all of the pressures the circumstances lay on her. It is a marvel to watch.
Under the Shadow is a psychological horror that brings so much more to the table than jump scares and creepy creatures. By the film’s end, the title begs to be answered… under the shadow of what? The film takes place under the shadow of war and so, too, does Shideh’s life take place under the shadow of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Perhaps the title is referring to the shadow cast by grief at the loss of a loved one and the effect it can have on a child to have an emotionally distracted mother, or possibly the title stands to illustrate how Shideh’s devastating experience is really the result of living in the shadow of her mother. In losing her chance to live up to familial expectations, Shideh is tormented by her inability to pursue a respected career and a paranoia surrounding her own incompetency as a mother, ultimately leaving her cast under the shadow of inadequacy.