An original supernatural horror movie set in Iran, Under the Shadow is an impressive debut for director Babak Anvari.
Under the Chadorby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Writer/director Babak Anvari’s first feature, the Farsi-language horror movie Under the Shadow is the UK’s Foreign Language Academy Award entry for 2016.
A UK/Jordan/Qatar/Iran co-production set in 1988 in a realistically recreated Tehran at the height of the Iran-Iraq war (and shot in Amman, Jordan), it’s easy to see Under The Shadow as an allegory of the powerful forces that the horrors of war can unleash.
Shideh (luminous, feisty Narges Rashdi) is an educated Westernised woman, passionate about becoming a doctor. But even though she dresses herself stultifyingly in a chador now that fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini is in power, she is distraught to be refused permission by her medical school to continue her studies because of her past political involvement.
Unable to work or study, in the safety of her home she wears Western clothes and exercises illicitly to a (forbidden) Jane Fonda aerobics video. She has no choice but to be a full-time – though loving – mother to her young daughter Dorsa (an extraordinarily nuanced performance by young Avin Manshadi). When her doctor husband Iraq (Bobby Naderi) is conscripted into national service in the battlefield, she is left alone with Dorsa in their apartment block.
Young war-orphan Mehdi, living with their superstitious neighbours, the Ebrahimis, tells Dorsa about evil spirits called djinns, who travel on the wind. When a mysteriously unexploded Iraqi missile crashes through the roof of the apartment block and cracks appear in the ceiling of the living room of Shideh’s apartment, it seems to have unleashed these malign supernatural forces. Dorsa’s doll goes missing and, if the djinns have taken it, the superstition says they can possess the child’s soul.
Shideh fights to find the doll and save her child in the face of realistic and malicious supernatural hallucinations. As the Iraqi air raids on Tehran step up, mother and daughter seek refuge from the bombing in the cellar. The djinn manifestations also become more insistent, but Shideh stubbornly refuses to leave Tehran with Dorsa for the safety of the countryside. Is she losing her grip on reality while under enormous pressure or is the supernatural really manifesting itself in this overheated crisis?
As well as being a very scary and atmospheric horror movie, Under the Shadow is implicitly about female oppression and resilience in the Iranian society of the time – at one point Shideh is arrested by the revolutionary guard for being in the street with Dorsa without being covered with a chador as she flees desperately with her daughter to escape the djinn – a misdemeanour punishable by a lashing. And as the djinn grows bolder, the form it takes with a monstrously engulfing chador threatens Shideh and Dorsa’s lives. Under the Shadow is tense, unusual and well worth seeing, with mainstream appeal. It’s a must-see even for non-horror fans.
Under the Shadow is released on 30 September 2016 in the UK.