The real terrors in Under the Shadow, Babak Anvari’s claustrophobic horror film about one woman’s fight against an evil spirit in her home, aren’t the fabled djinn that superstitious old ladies whisper about, travelling on the wind, looking for new souls to possess. There are more insidious forces at play creeping into the days and nights of Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a wife and mother put to the test as missiles rain down on her Tehran neighborhood circa 1988 in the midst of the chaos and destruction of the Iran-Iraq War.
Like, for example, the encroaching shroud of institutional control threatening to swallow Shideh whole as Under the Shadow opens with her, weary and desperately compliant, begging a university official to let her return to school to finish her studies to become a doctor. Swathed in a traditional black chador, her face is the only part of her visible—and it crumbles with hopelessness when he tells her she won’t be allowed back, blacklisted forever as punishment for her student activism during the Iranian Revolution.
He coldly breaks the news as a bomb goes off in the distant city skyline. “I suggest you find a new goal in life,” he says, unflinchingly. The damage ripples across her face almost imperceptibly, illustrating the complex maelstrom of emotions of Rashidi’s delicate, defiant performance. She wipes away tears on the way home, making sure not to let the checkpoint guards see her distress. Even as the vestiges of her greatest hopes and dreams die, a woman must keep up appearances to the men she encounters in public.
Iranian-born writer-director Anvari made a stunning splash at Sundance when he premiered Under the Shadow in January and swiftly sold streaming rights to Netflix, which all but assures this rare Farsi-language genre flick will find a mainstream berth. But the real coup came last month when Under the Shadow was selected as an official Oscar Foreign Language submission—by the United Kingdom, the country that houses producers Wigwam Films, whose money and comparative creative freedom made Anvari’s directorial debut possible.
It was certainly never an option for Anvari to make Under the Shadow in Iran, a country with a long and troublesome history of cinematic censorship, where even the great contemporary lions of Iranian cinema can’t operate freely, or are imprisoned for speaking truth to the nation’s politics on film. Instead, the U.K.-based Anvari recreated the Tehran of his youth in Jordan, where he shot the film, loosely inspired by his own mother’s experiences raising him as a child amid her own wartime fears.
Under the Shadow is a ghost story both on its surface and far below it; a haunted house tale in which the tangible dangers of the war outside are so immediate that no one really sees what’s happening within the walls. For a woman like Shideh caught between tradition and modernity, tethered to her duties as a wife and mother but straining to wield the independence she craves, it’s stiflingly paranoia-inducing even before an Iraqi missile lands atop her apartment building and brings with it an evil spirit with designs on her young daughter.
It’s Tehran in the late 1980s, and while the older couple who owns the building adheres to traditional religious practices, Shideh is reluctant to let go of the youthful freedoms of Western influence she once knew. She lives in a modestly-appointed flat with her doctor husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and their cherubic 6-year-old, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), covering her head when strangers call and working out to a beloved Jane Fonda VHS in the privacy of her own living room. The panic of wartime has become ingrained in everyone’s daily lives—lives that intersect in the dark, fortified basement where all the tenants gather for shelter when the air raid sirens go off.
She’s not a bad mother, but she’s not the most affectionate one either, distracted by outside pressures telling her how to live her life and the memory of her own recently deceased mom. Tensions escalate when Iraj is drafted for compulsory duty and Shideh reacts not with concern as much as jealousy tinged with a delightfully bitchy edge. He’s also not a bad husband, but maybe not the best one, meeting her open resentment of his freedom to practice medicine with his own latent judgments: Shouldn’t she be happy enough to be a stay at home mother to their child, he suggests? Long before the frights and jump scares unfold, Under the Shadow takes time to craft a complex heroine with flaws and frustrations of her own, and benefits richly from it.
Shideh only begins to dictate her own path when her husband leaves for the battlefront and horror strikes both inside and outside of her home. Strange occurrences start plaguing her around the house, and a skeptical Shideh begins to wonder if Dorsa’s childish fears of djinn might be the impossible answer. Anvari weaves in nightmarish visions with practical effects more effective than CG, slipping subtle tricks into the formalism of Kit Fraser’s camera work. The limitations of a modest budget might be to thank for that small-scale charm but they also pay off as Under the Shadow builds tension with an appropriately tactile domesticity: the billow of a curtain against an open window, the desecrated safety found beneath a quilt, the ominous swirl of a supernaturally endless chador.
As the haunting of her home escalates, not even Shideh knows what’s real and what’s not—or if she’s slowly losing her sanity. All the while Anvari chips away at the tenuous bond between mother and child, giving far more credit than most films do to Dorsa’s ability to read the silences between her mother’s sighs. As the bombings become more frequent, the neighbors start to flee the building and the city empties—all but Shideh, who stubbornly stands her ground. Eventually she’s the last one left, fighting for the life and love of her own child in a tensely wrought climax that ties all the strings together.
Under the Shadow is a work of feminist horror in that it illuminates with palpable dread the suffocating forces that creep in around Shideh, internalizing the increasing fears conjured by the war and multiplying them against the paralyzing anxiety of being a woman living under such repressive rule. It allows Shideh the gift of resentment, the tortured bitterness of seeing her only dreams retreat into the darkness beyond her reach within a prison she can’t escape. There’s also the cruel comedy of the outside world: the paradox of a government whose armed soldiers would sooner imprison a desperate mother for not wearing her hijab than ask her why she was fleeing her own home in the dead of night without one.
The film’s contained nightmare of a horror story plays out organically and urgently, following the terror up and down the staircases of Shideh’s abandoned, foreboding apartment building. But like all great genre films, the metaphorical poetry works on many levels and rings loudly beyond the time and place of its setting. Reminiscent of last year’s The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s slow-simmering horror tale of a mother wrestling demons for the sake of her child, Under the Shadow draws a wealth of drama from the quiet, frustrating, and often devastating agonies of womanhood. Ultimately it’s Shideh’s maternal instincts that give her the strength to face down evils, whether they’re real or imagined. Her triumph isn’t explicitly a political one, but intensely personal—and, by extension, political all the same.