Under the Shadow. 2016. Directed & Written by Babak Anvari.
Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi, Bijan Daneshmand, Sajjad Delafrooz, & Behi Djanati Atai.
Rated PG-13. 84 minutes.
I am a die hard horror lover. While it’s the genre for which I likely have the most love, it isn’t always a bouillon of cultural inclusion. Sometimes, yes, there are movies that capture a situation other than the typical bunch of white people and a token black friend we see so often, particularly in slasher sub-genre pictures. That’s not too often.
Under the Shadow isn’t just interesting or an inclusive look at stories outside the norm for Western audiences, it is also just a damn good horror flick. Director-writer Babak Anvari allows us a look into life, specifically for women, post-Islamic Revolution (also known as the 1979 Iranian Revolution). He taps into the anxieties and fears of people living in Tehran after the events of the revolution. More importantly, Anvari focuses on the plight of women through a look at a mother and wife whose life gets turned upside down during a period of bombing in Tehran.
A lot of people see a PG-13 rating on horror and they say “Horror is no good like that” or “Modern horror is shit.” To them I say: open your eyes. This is a fantastic, visual, creeping piece of horror cinema. Instead of the typical plot, Anvari opts to explore something outright political. Simultaneously, he cultivates poignant points about what the revolution did to and for women; or rather, what it forced on them.
You don’t have to view this movie as extending solely to the women post-Iranian Revolution, although it’s obviously centred on them to a large degree. Under the Shadow can similarly, on a wider scale, encompass the experiences and situations of women worldwide, and what living under a constant, forceful pressure of patriarchy can do to their psyches.
Above all else this film acts as an allegory. The haunting experienced by Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is symptomatic of the anxiety many women must have felt trapped between two worlds after the Islamic Revolution. For those who don’t know, part of the revolution involved a want – on the side of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – to distance itself from American influence. For instance, early on we watch Shideh exercising to an exercise tape of Jane Fonda’s workouts. The significance of this is the remnants of U.S. influence, and the tapes, as well as the VCR which plays them, come to illustrate more about how progressive families, and of course women, were kept on a tight leash living under Islamic rule. When a man comes to Shideh’s apartment to fix the windows, she must not only rush to put on her veil, she likewise has to hide the VCR and the tapes, so as not to alert the authorities. This one element examines deeply how anxious, repressed, fearful the lives of many were after a supposedly great revolution.
This leads into the overall subordination of women, which we see represented perfectly in Shideh. The plot hovers around the idea of the revolution causing family grief within families that weren’t exactly pro-revolution. In the beginning we witness Shideh trying to get her university career back on track. However, because she fought for her rights, putting aside medicine to rally for a different culture and an apparently more value-centric life, Shideh is sadly surprised – as many women were – that the Islamic Revolution merely made her wear a veil, cover herself and relinquish all her rights to husbands, fathers, men in general, and afterwards she also had to give up her dreams of being a doctor (because she was politically active). It’s like a massive kick to the guts.
But what does that mean in the grand scheme of the film’s themes?
Shideh’s situation is an allegory, a microcosm of the female experience, both after the revolution, and also nowadays. Women consistently must bear the brunt of wars fought and started by men. Looking at the main character after the ’79 Revolution is a way to get right at the core of such issues.
The movie uses djinn as the driving force of its horror. Within that choice of spirit is a further peek into the fears of women. The entire revolution has called the abilities of women into question; no longer were they capable of making decisions on their own, from wearing their veil to being totally at the mercy of husbands who could end a marriage at any time for any reason felt was worthy. Moreover, the concept of motherhood comes into the equation. When Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), her little girl starts feeling sick and probably stressed out due to being a child while bombs go off around her everywhere in Tehran, Shideh doesn’t only worry. Worse, she starts to question her own abilities as a mother. This is in part linked to the djinn, a woman in a veil appearing throughout their apartment and the rest of the building looking to take Dorsa away, because her mother can’t take care of her. Added to that, Shideh receives phone calls from her doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) who is away with the army – sometimes they’re normal, others she hears him say frightful things about her failings as a mother, a woman, and more. Between these nightmarish calls and the djinn lurking, Islamic rule looming large over women in Tehran, Shideh is constantly under the titular shadow.
She is under the shadow of war, of the veil, of Islam, and most of all, under the shadow of men. There’s one perfect image that explains how she, and many others, live under the shadow of war: as a missile lands on the roof of the apartment building, sticking down into one of the apartments, Shideh must perform CPR on an elderly man. This moment is so potent and yet almost gets lost amongst the tension. Aside from this image, the growing crack in the ceiling of the family’s apartment, similar to those in the house from Polanski’s Repulsion, comes to signify the constant anxiety and suspense, the cracks wearing through the home, which comes from living in such a difficult place and time.
My favourite image? There’s a scene when Shideh replaces tape on one of the windows, and as she finishes, standing back, the taped X sits in a shadow directly over her; she is literally X’d out, as in society. Maybe unintentional, or it could’ve come off as a nice use fo shadow. Either way, it looks fitting. There’s also an impressive jump scare, one of the best I’ve experienced in years – genuinely made me jump. A gradual build, as the screenplay feels in general, takes you with Shideh, step by step, before BAM! Grabs you by the throat, and it’s so brief you might find yourself winded a second or two, trying to determine what you just saw.
The performances all around are top notch, even young Manshadi in the role of Dorsa; she is both cute and full of energy. It’d be totally remiss of me not to talk about Narges Rashidi in the central role of Shideh. She is powerful, emotional. Just the look in her eyes during certain scenes is enough to pull you right inside her character. All the fear of inadequacy as a wife, a mother, a woman (because of male dominance) explodes from her. Rashidi is forceful at times, weak in others; she runs the gamut of the experience through which Shideh is going. Without her performance the emotional gravity of the role, and the entire film, may not have come through so magically. I’ve seen her in Asudem, and hope to see her more from this point on. One of my favourite performances of 2016.
I could go on writing. For ages. Under the Shadow is by and far one of the best horror movies since 2010. The excellent, enjoyable frights make anybody whining about PG-13 horror movies obsolete. There’s enough spooky business in Babak Anvari’s film to last longer than its lean 84-minute runtime.
For anyone who isn’t acquainted with history, the movie also acts as a brief history lesson on the rights of women post-Islamic Revolution. But it’s not just that, either. The cinematography, the set and production design, they all make the film’s look spectacular and authentic. Furthermore, the atmosphere is nearly surreal for those of us who’ve never experienced living under the conditions of being bombed.
There’s one scene that subtly sets up the dream conditions throughout the screenplay. Shideh sits up in bed, sees her daughter Dorsa, holds and rocks her, all the while the camerawork pans and moves side to side with each movement – a fun few shots, and initiates us into the world of dreams Shideh must face. Only one instance of the fine cinematography.
You have to see this movie! It is a must, for any film lover and definitely any horror fans pining for better days. I cannot stop raving about Under the Shadow. For a first feature, Anvari has done wonderful things. Looking forward to whatever he conjures up next.