Like an Iranian take on The Babadook, writer-director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an emotionally direct and realistic horror story centered around a socially isolated mother and child who are terrorized by eerie supernatural events. The paranormal happenings are very likely a combination of the mother’s hallucinations and the child’s way of making sense of the violence the mother perpetrates as her sanity ebbs and flows, but Anvari keeps things creepy in part by leaving open the possibility that there really may be something supernatural gripping his milieu.
Living in Tehran under Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign and during Iran’s long war with Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) feels the world closing in on her, a suffocation that comes to feel almost tactile through the specificity with which Anvari details her day to day. The relatively new fundamentalist regime has just denied her readmission to medical school because she supported the liberal opposition. She has to swathe herself in a chador before going out, although she wears sleeveless shirts and keeps her heads uncovered at home. Even in her own apartment, she must hide the VCR that plays her beloved Jane Fonda workout tape when a repairman arrives, afraid of being arrested if he sees and reports the forbidden electronics.
That’s enough to upset anyone’s equilibrium, but there are hints that Shideh may be psychologically unstable as well, from her husband Iraj’s (Bobby Naderi) comment that her being forbidden to go back to medical school was “probably for the best,” to their daughter Dorsa’s (Avin Manshadi) fear at being left alone with her when Iraj is called back to war. Dorsa’s fear seems justified by the rapid downhill slide their home life takes as soon as mother and daughter are on their own and the home that has been Shideh’s only refuge, the one place where she can shed the chador and operate like an autonomous adult, becomes just another menacing trap.
Authoritarian male voices squawking instructions over loudspeakers add to the perception that Shideh is surrounded by hostile forces. So do the air raids that send her and Dorsa and their neighbors down to the basement of their building. The masking tape that forms large X’s over her windows to keep glass from shattering inside the apartment during an explosion and the way the camera dashes nervously through the building or hovers in the hallway outside an open door, as Shideh and Dorsa rush about during an air raid, underline the fact that even their home is no longer a safe place.
Amped-up Iraqi attacks on Tehran cause most of the neighbors to abandon the building, making it feel unsettling in its emptiness. Even eerier is the missile that tears through the roof off of the building and embeds itself unexploded in the middle of a neighbor’s living room. Later, a large crack in the ceiling of Shideh’s formerly orderly apartment, caused by one of the bombings, takes on an otherworldly feel as Shideh sees what appears to be shadowy shapes whooshing in through it. Under the Shadow is abundant in such symbols and metaphors, for Shideh’s increasing nervousness and the untenable situation she finds herself in. They’re impossible to ignore, and some are more belabored than others, but they’re powerful nonetheless.
As Shideh’s ostensible madness escalates, manifestations of Iraj—a figure that appears in and then slides out of Shideh’s bed, a static-y voice on the phone—rail at her for being “useless” and unfit mother. Meanwhile, the search for a doll the real Iraj gave to Dorsa transforms the inside of their apartment into a war zone as Shideh frantically empties shelves and knocks over furniture. All the running up and down stairwells and the obsessing over Dorsa’s doll can feel redundant after a while, but the tedium serves a purpose, mirroring the shrinking of Shideh’s world and her growing distress in the face of her entrapment. And scenes like the one in which the shadowy woman’s chador envelops Shideh, nearly suffocating her until she fights free, are spookily and movingly expressive of the tenuous position of women in 1980s Iran, a vivid illustration of how hard women like Shideh must work just to carve out a little breathing room for themselves and their daughters.