Babek Anvari’s debut feature is a masterful example of a lean, tight piece of filmmaking. There is a cast of only 14 of which primary screen time is set aside for mother and little girl Shideh (Avin Manshadi) and Dorsa (Narges Rashadi).
At one hour 24 minutes in length everything depicted is vital for understanding the characters and develop the story. The main location is an apartment where scenes mostly take place in the family flat, in the bomb-shelter in the basement or on the series of stairs that connect the two. However, at no point does it have budget values or looks to cut corners as it relies on the surprising realism of the situations and the psychological profiling of the two female leads to tell a convincing horror/thriller story against the backdrop of Iranian culture and superstition.
It’s the 1980’s and Dr. Iraj is conscripted, leaving behind his wife and daughter in a building which is in a bombing zone. His wife, Shideh, has just been told she cannot return to university to complete her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. The stifling patriarchal decision by the director of the university sparks an argument with her husband about her motherhood and priorities. Although her they part on good terms, it leaves doubts in Shideh’s Western-leaning mind which will grow as she becomes more and more alone as her neighbour’s flea the building to seek safer territory. Indeed, an unexploded bomb goes through the roof of the block leaving a large hole to the sky and a crack in their living room a few floors below. The stress as the pillars of her life crumble around her is heightened by her daughter’s feverh, which will not break.
At this early stage the structure of the film could be a platform for a pure socio-political commentary. However, the introduction of a child displaced by the death of his parents and placed with relatives in the block brings with it a supernatural element. Slowly and organically the film morphs into something else, something darker. Stories of evil ‘Djinn’ from folklore scare little Dorsa and her doll Kimia disappears. It was her talisman of protection. Its loss begins to divide the mother and daughter. With Dorsa in seeming delirium, she is obsessed with its return and soon, so is Shideh.
Brilliantly written by Anvari too, Under The Shadow is consuming and increasingly tense. By the climax, nail marks in the sofa are only just starting to fade. Thematic touches such as the taping of windows to protect from bomb blasts and the medical textbook given to Shideh are lovely little recurring details. The comment, if underlying and subtle, on female liberation in Iran is equally as strong as the film as a thriller in its own right. Working out to a Jane Fonda fitness VHS, wearing relatively revealing clothes and striving to be a professional women and a mother rather than cooped up at home all work back into Shideh’s claustrophobia and frustration. The series of events are entirely believable, whether it be through dreams, paranoia, the stress of impending bombs or worries over her daughter’s health. The ‘delusions’ become more extant as the unease grows but that just makes for a dramatic flourish, not a break in the illusion at all.
Don’t be put off by subtitles. This psychodrama just happens to be Iranian. Embrace the twist.
Review by George Meixner