Under the Shadow
by Hope Madden
Two years ago, Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent unleashed the brilliant and devastating single parent nightmare, The Babadook. As much subtext as text, the film vibrated with the anxiety of a parent torn between resentment and the powerful fear that something demonic might harm her only child.
Fast forward two years, and first-time feature filmmaker, Iranian Babak Anvari, treads familiar ground yet manages to shift focus entirely and create the profound and unsettling Under the Shadow.
Here the social commentary sits even closer to the surface. The tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.
Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.
What begins as a domestic drama suitable for fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) turns slowly into something else entirely as Anvari dips into the horror trope toolbox to shake up our expectations with familiar devices.
When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.
Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.
The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.
Anvari casts the political climate meticulously, as forces beyond Shideh’s control – some supernatural, some cultural, all dangerous – surround her.
Though the strength of the cultural context sometimes undercuts the spookiness of the ghost story being told, Under the Shadow builds a strong case for itself as a horror film. Bursts of creepy imagery punctuate the increasingly tense atmosphere. It’s here that Anvari’s film is most effective, as you realize Shideh is better off dealing with ghouls than turning to neighbors or authorities for help.