Some of the most notable indie horror movies of the last few years have been by women or about women. For example, see Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Each of these films also demonstrates a kind of hybridity with its horror, using genre conventions to explore the social pressures placed on their heroines as they negotiate the challenges of motherhood, sex, religion, and the patriarchy in general.
You can add Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow to the above list, which was favorably compared to The Babadook after screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There are plenty of similarities–a put-upon mother protecting her child from a malevolent force, a sense that she’s going through a nervous breakdown–but the comparison sets up some unfair expectations for the film. (It’s hard for any indie horror movie of late to be as good as The Babadook.) The general plot sounds familiar, sure, but the the boogeymen the women are up against are much different.
The demon in The Babadook is rooted in something personal, whereas the demon of Under the Shadow is rooted in a sense of pervasive cultural oppression.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of New Directors/New Films, an annual showcase of emerging filmmakers from around the world. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Under the Shadow (زیر سایه)
Director: Babak Anvari
Release Date: October 7, 2016 (limited)
It’s easy to spot shadows everywhere in Anvari’s film given the nature of the beast. Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, there are frequent air raid sirens and the threat of missiles coming down on civilian targets at any moment. Anvari sets up a particularly memorable tableau of an unexploded missile that’s come through an apartment ceiling. An elderly man lies prone on the ground as if pinned there beneath the shell; the pointed nose seems to have pierced him through the heart.
Our hero Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives in the apartment below, and that particular attack has left her ceiling a mess of cracks. For the characters who live in the building, their meager defense against being blown to pieces involves taping their windows and waiting in the basement for the terror to pass.
There’s more than the threat of bombs. Under the Shadow opens with Shideh getting kicked out of medical school because of her activism during the Iranian revolution. She’s maintained a defiantly western mentality even after the Shah was exiled. Shideh rarely wears a hijab or chador (traditional headscarf and cloak, respectively), and she owns a VCR–a Jane Fonda aerobic workout is a form of dissent. When her husband is called away to the frontlines, Shideh is left alone to look after their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). The rest of the building seems to be fleeing, and there’s talk of djinn, an ancient evil of legend, riding on the wind.
Anvari gets a lot of thematic mileage out of the chador and masking tape on windows. Ana Lilly Amirpour, writer/director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, said that wearing a chador felt very bat-like to her, which helped inspire her chic vampire film (sort of like the Persian-language cousin of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive). For Shideh in Under the Shadow, the chador is a stifling metaphor: an invisible specter delineated in a sheet, a manifestation of Iran’s political oppression, the symbol of a gender role she’s disavowed. These things cannot be kept out by putting masking tape on windows. At various times in the film, the tape is peeling away.
Anvari was born in Iran and lived there 17 years, but is now based in the UK. While he’s sometimes distanced himself from the film’s politics to emphasize the personal story between Shideh and Dorsa, it’s hard for me to view Under the Shadow apolitically. It’s a political movie because Shideh’s a politically involved hero. Even if it’s not always front and center, her actions speak to her politics. Shideh’s struggles to keep the bombs and the djinn out aren’t just for her own dignity but for Dorsa’s future. Dorsa’s little doll goes missing amid the chaos, and by extension we’re left to wonder what future Dorsa’s daughter might face if they were to remain in Iran. (Under the Shadow was shot in Jordan given numerous government restrictions/requirements when making films in Iran.)
I’ll admit I didn’t find much of Under the Shadow scary, but I rarely find horror movies scary. It’s eerie, however, and well-crafted. Most times I appreciate a horror movie for being memorable more than being scary.
Rashidi is a solid emotional anchor for the film. Manshadi’s not given as much to do acting-wise, but that says more about the nature of Dorsa as a character, who’s a little one-note adorable. Rashidi plays Shideh with that exasperated air of a parent pushed to her limit, a woman who cares for her daughter so much yet can’t help but feel she’s also failing her in some way. It might be the all the other worries of country and career that makes her feel this way, pressing down more and more. The cracks begin to show, and they grow bigger, and it’s always getting darker.