Fear and anxiety have a way of unsettling us: sometimes bringing out our worst selves and sometimes forcing us to find our better natures. Writer/director Babak Anvari explores this in his Iranian horror, UNDER THE SHADOW. He also shows how fear, anxiety, and war can unearth darker powers in Nature. The look of the film is simple but with a growing oppression, a sometimes claustrophobic feel. The main characters are at the mercy not only of the external unrest but also of what is lurking in their minds.
The film takes place in Tehran in the 80’s, during the Iran-Iraq war. There is political revolution in Iran, and Iraq is bombing the city. Caught in the middle is Shideh (Narges Rashidi), her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Iraj, a doctor, gets drafted and sent away, leaving Shideh and Dorsa behind. Amid the frequent bombing raids forcing them to take cover in the basement of their apartment building with the neighbors, Dorsa begins seeing spirits, or Djinn, in the house.
After a particularly terrifying missile attack, Dorsa falls ill with a fever that won’t break and strange frantic behavior. She insists to Shideh that the Djinn have taken her favorite doll and, without it, she will never get better. Shideh is reluctant to believe until she begins to see things herself. Everyone else in the building leaves the city for safety, and it is just her and Dorsa left to contend with what remains.
UNDER THE SHADOW is not just a horror film. Anvari addresses very important political and social issues. Shideh finds out she can no longer study to be a doctor due to political affiliations she had when she was young. She is also dealing with the recent death of her mother. She struggles with her feelings of resentment which affect her relationship with Dorsa. She also struggles with feelings of inadequacy as a wife and mother and these feelings seem to be amplified through the people around her and the manipulations of the spirits. There is something of a BABADOOK mother/child dynamic happening. Rashidi and Manshadi play this dynamic out so well without going over the top.
Cinematographer Kit Fraser uses a basic drab apartment that is slowly crumbling from the repeated bombings as the main backdrop for the film. Shideh is constantly retaping the windows and the cracks in the ceiling, almost as if in an attempt to ward off the evil spirits. The few scenes outside the apartment gates are also tense. Nowhere is safe. The Djinn also fly about in abayas, long traditional Muslim robes, another attempt to psychologically undermine Shideh.
The oppressive nature of the film grows as we watch Shideh trying to navigate through the many restrictions she faces, not only by the bombings and the supernatural beings in her home, but also out in the city; in particular, the repercussions she faces after fleeing with Dorsa out in the street, in fear, in the middle of the night without head covering. She tries desperately to stand her ground and not give in, at the same time trying not to lose her daughter. She is faced with trying to salvage what is important in her life as the world around her falls apart.