Under the Shadow (2016)

Under the Shadow begins with text about the Iran-Iraq War of the Eighties (when the film’s events are set) that followed hard upon the 1979 Iranian revolution – and the title credits are accompanied by archival footage of bombs dropping and people scattering in the streets of Tehran. For Babak Anvari’s bold debut – an intimate tale of a domestic haunting – is carefully framed by destructive history and rooted in the social changes of its time.

The opening scene shows Shideh (Narges Rashidi) revisiting her old university from which, some years earlier, she had been ejected from a medical degree for her leftist political activity. Now she hopes to be reinstated to the course, but as, through the window of the male Director’s office, a bomb is seen dropping, he informs her unequivocally that she can never, ever return to her studies. The damage has already been done, the shockwaves remain, and there can be no going back.

The impossibility of going back is a key theme in Under the Shadow. When her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), now a qualified doctor thanks to both his political quietism and, implicitly, his sex, is sent off to the front line on military service, Shideh is left behind to look after their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). After a bomb hits the upper floor of their building – but, in shades of Guillermo del Toro’s similar tale of history’s ghosts The Devil’s Backbone (2001), fails to explode – literal cracks form in the fabric of the already fraught family environment, things go bump in the night, and Shideh’s disturbing dreams start leaking into reality.

The suggestion – coming paradoxically from a mute neighbour – that there are djinns determined to work their ill in the building only adds to Shideh’s already frayed nerves, as does a strange fever that afflicts Dorsa. The landlord’s wife Mrs Ebrahimi (Aram Ghasemy) explains that djinns take away treasured items, and if those things are not recovered, their owners become forever lost. Yet Dorsa’s missing doll, Sideh’s missing (and illicit) Jane Fonda VHS, and also the missing textbook on physiology left to Sideh by her late mother, are all emblems of the freedoms lost to Iranian women under the shadow of the Revolution – even as we see Sideh being stopped at checkpoints, having to don a veil when men visit her home, and being arrested for rushing in terror from the building with her face and hair immodestly uncovered. Significantly, the most frightening djinn in the film is figured as an endless flowing chador, that ultimate visual symbol of post-revolutionary female repression.

There are certainly psychological undercurrents to the film’s paranormal activities, as Shideh, stressed-out and unraveling in her husband’s absence, begins to exhibit all the maternal madness of The Babadook (2014). Yet Under the Shadow also offers itself up as an allegory of a nation left permanently damaged by the ravages of its own religio-political transformation. Like Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), this is feminist horror made by an Iranian in exile, looking in from the outside – and as ominous winds of change blow through Shideh’s home, Anvari matches social insights with expertly managed scares.

© Anton Bitel