2016 PG-13 Iran / Qatar / UK / Jordan Babak Anvari 84 mins.
Under the Shadow marks the directorial and writing debut of Iranian-born Babak Anvari. Having screened at film festivals in mid-2016 (the film notably won best film prize at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival), Under the Shadow opened in select theaters and on VOD on October 7. Netflix has acquired the rights to the film, so it will eventually be even more widely available. And that’s a very good thing because Under the Shadow is one of the best independent horror films released in the last few years—in the company of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014), and The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015).
Here’s the trailer:
Filmed in Jordan because of restrictions on film-making in Iran, Under the Shadow is set in Tehran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, a war Anvari was born into and experienced first-hand as a young child. With the exception of a handful of brief exterior scenes, the film is contained within one apartment building (Anvari has talked of the influence of Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, and Repulsion)—and, indeed, the building almost becomes a character in itself as it reflects the escalating trauma and terror experienced by its residents. At the center of Under the Shadow are a mother, Shideh, and her daughter, Dorsa, brilliantly played by Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi. Relatively early in the film, Shideh’s husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is compelled to leave to fulfill his military service. It’s his departure, and the conditions under which he departs, that set in motion much of what happens. For as well-meaning as Iraj may be, he undercuts his wife—her ability to protect their daughter as well as her aspirations for a career—and thus leaves her in a fragile mental state that worsens as the film progresses.
As the film tracks Shideh and Dorsa, increasingly isolated in their building as residents leave, one after the other, it brilliantly interweaves the palpable presence of war—constant sirens and Iraqi missile attacks—with a more supernatural, impalpable menace. Indeed, I’ve seen few horror films that so adeptly bind together very real and very ghostly threats—beginning on the day an unexploded missile crashes into one of the apartments in Shideh and Dorsa’s building. Moments later, the elderly man in the apartment dies, telling his daughter he saw a strange figure in the room.
Several occupants of the apartment building, including Dorsa, become convinced that they are under attack from djinn—spirits that are “evil and want to hurt us.” The threat from the djinn are utterly interwoven with the very violent threat posed by the Iraqi army—but also, for Shideh in particular, with the threat posed by her own country. Shideh is clearly ambivalent at best about the Iranian Cultural Revolution—indeed, we learn that she protested it during her university years, one reason she, unlike her husband, never finished her medical degree. In fact, the film opens with Shideh asking if she can continue her studies at the university and being told by a man sitting in the shadow of a painting of the Ayatollah Khomeini (head of the Islamic State in Iran) that because she protested the Revolution, she is permanently barred from the university.
Shideh is, moreover, fully veiled during this encounter—not recognizable in this shot as herself. A large part of Shideh’s mental deterioration is not only due to this stifling of who she is and what she wants (even her husband says it is perhaps “for the best” that she can now devote herself to their child), but due to the double life she is forced to live. She has to hurriedly put on hijab when she answers the door or goes outside—and the distance between her private and public selves, her literal alienation from herself—is part of the threat the djinn both exploit and symbolize.
There is much to be said about the artistry of this film, in its near perfect visual and narrative blending of realistic and supernatural horrors, but I want to say something about just one aspect of this blending—and it’s about the role that things play in Under the Shadow.
According to stories of the djinn, they “travel on the wind from place to place until they find someone to possess.” But before they possess people, djinn possess things. As (the always-appropriately veiled) Mrs. Ebrahimi (Aram Ghasemy) tells Shideh: “You know if they take a personal possession, something that you treasure, then there’s no escape from them? You’ll be marked, and they’ll always know how to find you.” The djinn first attack Shideh’s daughter through her beloved doll, Kimia—who becomes a kind of stand-in for the father who can protect her, as opposed to the mother who cannot.
But then they attack Shideh herself through her own beloved possessions, a Jane Fonda workout tape and a medical book that contains an inscription from her dead mother. Both of these things mark Shideh’s aspirations to be more than her increasingly repressive Islamic society allows her to be—and they also, I should add, suggest her flaws. Shideh is not a perfect protagonist by any means. The film allows that her husband may be right about her less-than-complete commitment to a medical career, and scenes showing her working out in front of the TV to Jane Fonda while her world crumbles around her are strangely jarring.
But Shideh is human—not a poster-child for political opposition to the Islamic Revolution and not a perfect mother, and that just makes Under the Shadow a much better film in my view.
Shideh’s beloved things—her tape and her medical book—increasingly come under attack in the film (as does Dorsa’s doll, Kimia). These attacks embody, in small, the larger way in which the film manifests how the effects of war and oppression work in tandem with the supernatural menace of the evil spirits. Both forces dispossess Shideh and her daughter of the things that give their lives meaning—and it remains unclear if it is the djinn, the Iraqi military, or the Iranian government that are most responsible for this dispossession.
The film ends brilliantly with lingering shots of these things—Dorsa’s doll and Shideh’s medical book—telling us that the events of the film, whether they be supernatural or real / political, have assaulted who Shideh and Dorsa are, “possessed” them not least by dispossessing them of things that are central to who they are. We are all human, but we are also displaced into the things to which we attribute meaning and that give our lives meaning. Those things can be possessed by djinn and destroyed by political terror and war. And the effect, in the end, is the same.