Under the Shadow | reviews, news & interviews
Under the Shadow
Under the Shadow
Strikingly original terror stalks wartorn Tehran
We haven’t been here before. Tehran in 1980, bombed by its Iraqi invaders and jumpy with revolutionary fervour, is a place preoccupied with ordinary fear. Showing the normal if pressurised life he remembers from childhood in this demonised country is debutant writer-director Babak Anvari’s first coup. Letting this slide slowly into Persian myth and cinematic dread opens a new door in horror. The more arch A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night introduced the genre to the Iranian diaspora. Under the Shadow’s politicised, feminist tale turns the Tehran flat it barely leaves into a terror landmark.
Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is struck her bitterest blow in the first scene. Her past in one of the left-wing groups that helped topple the Shah means – she’s coldly told by a male official – that her dream of being a doctor is over. As a professional woman, she has no future. This arbitrary edict can’t be answered, and Shideh’s life becomes one of suppression and fury. Her doctor husband, preoccupied with his posting away to the front line, is barely sympathetic. Her now illegal Jane Fonda aerobics VHS collection lets her manically work off some steam, and she does her best to maintain normal life for her beloved daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi, pictured below).
But when an unexploded missile lodges in a floor above her, the cracks in her ceiling help let in a more ancient nemesis: a desert djinn, which preys on fear, and can’t be escaped while it keeps a precious object. The lost doll Dorsa becomes increasingly obsessed by ties them to their war-emptied apartment block, and the shadow-thing lurking in it.
Rashidi, who shares her director’s memories of wartime fear (so similar to my mother’s of the Blitz), makes Shideh a memorable heroine. Physically and mentally durable, headstrong, flawed and unreasonable in the face of her society’s unreasonable pressure, suggestions that she’s an unfit mother keep her at her post with Dorsa too long. Like The Babadook, this is a domestic horror film about a mother and child’s lonely, steely bond.
MR James once wrote a ghost story about a sheet blowing on a line, and the djinn, too, manifests as a sheet, a cloak, a duvet and, most pointedly, the sort of chador Shideh forgets to grab as she flees it into the arms of a street patrol, and narrow escape from the lash. The doctor’s borders have become a housewife’s, her nightmares a potential widow’s. She turns over in bed to the shadowy body of a husband who isn’t there, and futilely tapes her window against the outside, where the wind gusts as if this is the old desert, with no protection to be had. A clawing fight with perhaps possessed Dorsa is the closest Under the Shadow comes to The Babadook’s guilty admission that love for a child can sometimes turn to hate. Its mixture of detailed realism and supernatural dread shows all the ways a society can drag a woman to hell.
Overleaf: watch the trailer for Under the Shadow
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