Under the Shadow
- Narges Rashidi as Shideh
- Avin Manshadi as Dorsa
- Bobby Naderi as Iraj
Under the Shadow marks the directing debut of Iranian-born Babak Anvari. Drawing on a number of disparate themes and genre tropes, he crafts this eerie horror-drama set in post-revolution, war-torn Iran.
Shideh is a mother living in Tehran in the 80’s as conflict continues between Iraq and Iran. She has been trying to regain a place at university, but due to her past involvement in protests during the revolution, she is turned away from studying to become a doctor. Her husband Iraj, who himself is a trained doctor, attempts to support her, but Shideh is hurt by the rejection and lives in fear of the conflict that is engulfing her and her daughter Dorsa. Her refusal to adhere to many things in her culture also marks her as different, especially in the way people around her view her. Soon after being told that she can’t study, Iraj is called up to the military to serve as a doctor in a particularly under attack area. His absence leaves Shideh looking after young Dorsa all alone. Yet events take a significant turn, in between the runs to shelter and Dorsa developing a fever, a missile that doesn’t explode lands in one of the apartments, coinciding with the death of one of the tenants. After this strange incident that particularly shakes Shideh, peculiar events occur for her and Dorsa. The biggest one is people in her apartment building, who all slowly leave for safety, speak of a Djinn; a spirit brought forth by the wind, that can latch onto people, usually through the taking of a personal object. Shideh simply puts this down to just superstition, but after her daughter talks of seeing something that has stolen her precious doll, things start to get unnerving. With both the threat of death looming large due to the seemingly never-ending war and the possible presence of something unnatural, the worn out Shideh is pushed to the limit as she starts to feel more isolated by the day. As Dorsa becomes more feverish and testing, Shideh is left to decipher whether or not the Djinn is real and after her. Most cases seem to point to something amiss after the missile struck, but can she be sure? In a desperate fight and clinging to her sanity, she fights to protect her daughter and figure out just what is going on around her before whatever it is closes her in.
Under the Shadow may be his full length feature debut, but there are no first movie nerves shown from Babak Anvari, who also wrote the script. The backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War adds a lot of depth and another example of horror. For all the strange and possibly supernatural things happening, the horror of the everyday and the shock of war are just as realised and plausibly frightening. The most compelling part of Under the Shadow is the ambiguity it has going for it. One can look at the film from multiple angles and interpretations. These appear in both the story and what the film is ultimately about, in terms of genre and thematic value. In one way, the movie could be viewed as a woman’s fears of society shackling her for her free-thinking attitude. Or are these strange events that Shideh thinks are related to the malevolent Djinn, just her feelings of anxiety manifesting onto her young and impressionable daughter? Perhaps the missile that landed in the apartment building did bring something sinister with it. We are never given a definitive answer to these questions, which only deepens the impact of Under the Shadow and leaves the viewer seriously chewing the cud. One of the biggest compliments I can give the movie is that I’m certain it will benefit many viewings, that will no doubt uncover things you may have not noticed the first time around. For me the biggest amount of drama and emotion came from the relationship between mother and daughter. With the obvious stress and terror of the war raging on, tensions run high and Dorsa often clashes with her mother; but there is a deep love there that forms the core of Under the Shadow when it gets into the creepy territory of horror and must fight to save her offspring. There is scarcely a moment of complete silence in this film that enables it to become very chilling extremely quickly. Whether it be the wind wailing, static from the radio or the hum of outside, sound is ever-present and menacing too. There is a definite ghostly hum that simmers away in Under the Shadow to creepy effect, almost from the very start.
The acting of Under the Shadow is superb, largely because of how small it is that we get to watch these people act with well-written roles. The striking Narges Rashidi is extremely convincing , resilient and appropriately nuanced as the struggling and free-thinking Shideh, who battles both opposition from others, the terror of war and the prospect of something otherworldly at work. Her face says a thousand things that words can’t and you do feel her struggles in the face of multiple horrors, even when she is being stubborn and get through everything on her own terms that she thinks are the best. Avin Manshadi, as the young girl who appears to have seen the Djinn, is very impressive for someone so young and we want to help her in this time of horror, whatever kind that may be. The bond between the mother and daughter is undoubtedly believable and palpable due to the performances that completely sell their fears and terror in a situation that is unusual and frightening. Bobby Naderi appears briefly as the husband who is then called up to be of medial assistance, but he makes his part good for what small material he is given.
An unusual blend of mother-daughter drama and ghost story, Under the Shadow succeeds on its own spooky and thought-provoking merits, as well as giving us a glimpse of a place and time many of us may be unfamiliar with.