Synopsis: As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home. (Source)
Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow creeps up on us the moment we’ve let our guard down. Assured and socially textured, Anvari’s debut is the type of horror film that shows how fear is indiscriminate, framing true-life horror within superstition and parental anxiety. Set amidst the infamous Iran-Iraq war of the 80’s, Anvari’s film works really well as both a reflection on the horrors of war, and a psychological portrait of personal inadequacy. Adding to the lean presentation, Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi are incredible, allowing the gothic ghost story to explore the power of belief, not just getting under our skin but also into our minds.
Following both Iran’s Cultural Revolution and the death of her mother, Shideh’s (Narges Rashidi) only desire is to finish her studies and become a doctor. She’s stopped in her tracks, however, when her past political actions ban her from returning to University. Now, as the Iran-Iraq war rages into its 8th year, desperation has begun to set in. Still, the constant threat of bombing raids somehow take a second seat to Shideh’s own disappointment in herself. Things take a turn when Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is called to serve in the war, leaving her alone with a daughter named Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), whose fragile state of mind seems inconsolable. Making matters worse, Shideh and Dorsa’s minds become the target of a malevolent spirit, one that seemingly knows how to use their greatest fears against them, even as falling bombs reduce Tehran to rubble.
Initially, Anvari’s film is a terrifying war story that takes a hard look at how survivors manage to cope. The film literally begins with a bang, as Shideh pleads for a second chance at her studies while a bomb explodes in the distance. Her and her company don’t even flinch when this happens, clearly defining the insulated world that she and her community have been forced to create for themselves. Through it all, Shideh finds comfort in a fleeting sense of normalcy, popping in a VHS tape of Jane Fonda to work out, while her daughter Dorsa corrals her into tea time with her favorite doll. These two are crippled both emotionally and physically by what’s happening outside, adding to the suppression of not just their gender but also their freedom, this alone already making things terrifying. In addition, Anvari uses this contrast between domesticity and social status quo as a way to set up a rhythm of unease, before really taking things next level. When Anvari begins to earnestly introduce his malevolent spectre (which is woven throughout if you know where to look), things are already too tense to bear, especially when Shideh and Dorsa’s bond begins to break due to a lost doll.
On the creepy side, Anvari amplifies primal fear, building upon his war torn premise to set up surreal frights. Things start small – a crack in the wall, a missing doll, a door that doesn’t close properly and the sound of someone walking in a darkened hallway. Perverting real life mundanity amidst psychological tension, Anvari’s take on the mythological Djinn is one that stops us in our tracks, with beautifully staged sequences that jolt when we least expect, and a monster that digs deep to use our darkest, most personal fears against us. Adding to this is a strong sense of style and atmosphere, anchored by some clever camera work and lighting which grow more impressionistic as the film progresses. Without spoiling too much, the film’s villain is one that transcends its appearance on screen, one built upon thematic implication and meaning in addition to physical threat. Employing a minimalist plot to maximum effect, the scares tighten like a noose around the viewer and offer no escape.
Though there are a few side characters, the majority of the film is almost exclusively Shideh and Dorsa, with Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi turning in two performances which hook us with ease. Narges’ Shideh is the film’s center, carrying the story with a character who is broken but trying her best to hide it. Her performance is majorly based on inner conflict, and she helps to streamline a lot of the film’s ideas, carrying them like a weight on her shoulder and allowing us to feel the tension of her everyday routine. She’s a complex character, definitely flawed, but celebrated for it. As the young Dorsa, Avin Manshadi holds her own. She’s given more to do than just act creepy, and is a reminder of the innocence at stake, as someone who’s grown up with war outside of her window, and is clinging to all she has left – her mother. Towards the end, Rashidi and Avin take turns being the assertive one, both acting as the other’s strength.
By creating a focused portrait centered on circumstances out of our control, Anvari’s film is one that taps into ideas and a culture not often scene in the genre. Freedom and equality, living in the shadow of destruction and even the idea that we could lose a loved one at any moment are all rich ideas, and Anvari uses them in a way that’s accessible and emotionally raw. Stylish and fresh, Under the Shadow is perfect (especially if you liked The Babadook) for those of us who want substance with their scares.