Written and Directed by: Babak Anvari
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, and Bobby Naderi
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"They travel on the wind..."
Even though the United States has been at war for about half of my life, I am remarkably privileged that I have rarely felt that fact. I can only imagine the suffocating horror of living with the specter of war, of waking up every day unsure if my home will be pulverized by a missile or bomb. Living with this constant fear must take an immense strength that I can only imagine, yet itís exactly what millions of people endure on a daily basis as many of usómyself included, obviouslyógo on about our lives, free to browse Netflix and watch films like Under the Shadow at our leisure. Itís a cosmic injustice that some of us have it so easy while others face such difficulties, and Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari has channeled those anxieties into one of the more affecting horror films in recent memory. Under the Shadow dwells on the fears and angst of not only living in a war-torn country but also of living under the thumb of a repressive regime whose extremism has diminished you as a person.
You arenít likely to come across a film more powerful and timely anytime soon, even though Under the Shadow is set in late-80s Tehran, during the 8-year conflict that engulfed Iran and Iraq. Here, former medical student Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives an unfulfilled life in the wake of the regime and culture change that swept through Iran. Because she was politically active during her time at school, she was kicked out, and her attempts to re-enroll have been futile, leaving her to play the role of demure housewife to a husband (Bobby Naderi) and a young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Tension and twinge of resentment hover over the household, threatening to unravel whatever pleasantness can possibly exist amongst the din of explosions and air raid sirens. When the husband is drafted into service, Shidehís life only becomes more harrowing, as Dorsa begins to have terrifying nightmares before becoming mysteriously ill. Shideh herself begins to question her own sanity and capabilities as a mother as more sinister, ethereal forces begin to encroach alongside a war that hits closer to home each day.
Under the Shadow is a gripping, horrifying depiction of living with a war that shakes every corner of your existence. At no point can Shideh escape, as her own homeóand the only place she doesnít have to wear a burqaósoon becomes a crucible of her maternal anxieties and broken dreams. While she loves her family, this still isnít exactly what she wanted from life: constantly cowering in fear, huddled alongside the other terrified occupants of her apartment building; having to tape and re-tape windows constantly rattled by missiles; being subtly belittled by a husband who presumes itís ďfor the bestĒ that she isnít re-admitted to school. Her decisions as a mother are constantly questioned, as the husband insists she should take Dorsa away from the city, to the relative safety of his parentsí house. Dorsaís illness and strange behavior spiral out of control, leaving her feeling utterly helpless. Itís terrifying on a human level to watch someone reckon with themselves and their unfair lot in life.
Thatís how Under the Shadow works on you: it slowly creeps under your skin through the increasingly tense character dynamics, particularly the strained relationship between Shideh and her daughter. It begets an obvious comparison to The Babadook, which is fairóin some respects Under the Shadow is mining those same maternal fears of inadequacy in the face of preternatural terrors. Shideh lashes out at Dorsa more than once during the course of the film, and each time is startling as hell. Under the Shadow isnít a film thatís out to jolt you with obvious jump scares; rather, itís out to shake you with powerful character moments that dwell on shortcomings and inadequacies.
Both Rashidi and Manshadi completely inhabit these characters: the former has a constantly pang of regret lurking behind her eyes, no matter how resolute she might appear in front of neighbors or her terrified daughter. In an absolutely remarkable debut, Manshadi skirts around the edge of typical creepy kid territory, as her turn is marked more by a frustrated sense of confusion. When her favorite dollóand security totemógoes missing, sheís a bundle of nerves as she frantically ransacks the apartment building, driven by a bewildered desperation. Resentment swells within her as Shideh becomes her enemy at the behest of the unseen spirits visiting her at night, warping her little mind into something hateful.
Under the Shadow would be utterly disturbing without the constant presence of the war, yet itís always there. This is how Anvari crafts atmosphere: not through the usual haunted house parlor tricks but through the grim reality the characters live with on a daily basis. An eerie stillness hangs over much of the film, almost as if itís holding its breath alongside a set of characters who simply want to get through the day without those sirens and explosions. As the war grows closer to Tehran, their numbers dwindle due to evacuations: what was once a full basement teeming with huddled masses is an empty husk by the end of the film. Shideh watches her world literally fall apart in this suffocating theater of war, with a prominent crack in her ceiling mirroring her psychological state every step of the way.
Anvari builds to the overt horror elements in the most patient way imaginable: there are ďslow burnsĒ and then thereís Under the Shadow, a film that deliberately creeps towards one supernatural burst during its climax. Itís at this point the film finally indulges the fleeting glimpses of whatever malevolent force has descended upon the building. The screenplay offers a few clues: one of the neighbors has taken in a preternaturally mute orphan who whispers tales of demonic Djinn who ride the wind of angst and anxiety. Another, more subtle possibility arises as objectsómost prominently a book of medicine gifted to Shideh by her recently-deceased motheróbegin to mysteriously move about the house. The dead matriarchís specter already looms large, as Shideh cannot bear that she has not lived up to her motherís dream for her: on at least one level, the titular shadow here may refer to parental expectations, regret, and how both are passed on from one generation to the next.
What is clear is that Under the Shadow is most often concerned with the specifically feminine anxieties that arise from this premise. Itís not just the war thatís robbed Shideh of her agency, as the oppressive regime that thwarts her desires is just as responsible. Some of the filmís more chilling scenes dwell on the stark reality of the institutionalized sexism of Iranís conservative theocracy, most pointedly a sequence where Shideh flees from her house without covering herself is arrested in humiliation. Even a visit from strangers prompts angst, as Shideh must hurriedly cover herself and stash away forbidden paraphernalia, like her VHS player and a Jane Fonda workout tape.
Those two seemingly innocuous items wind up playing a bigger role than expected, not only as functional narrative elements but also as symbolism. Where most 80s period pieces would fetishize a top-loading tape deck and the garish aerobics video, Under the Shadow undercuts the usual nostalgia by reminding viewers that cultural touchstones that most of us take for granted were dangerous, revolutionary objects in this context. Itís a stark reminder that reveals Anvariís commitment to revealing just how thoroughly entrenched this culture of fear wasóand still is.
Considering thousands of Syrians have been gassed by their own government in recent years (some as recently as this week), we can never forget that the past is merely prologue. I am reminded of Roger Ebertís conception of cinema as a machine of empathy, and Under the Shadow fulfills that function as comprehensively as any film in recent memory. This is an absolutely vital horror movie whose horrors are all too real for millions of people across the globe.
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