The Verse’s Tom Hyde reviews the Iranian horror film in his Under the Shadow review.
Shadows can be cast by many sources: war, oppression, malevolent ethereal spirits bent on ruining a good night’s sleep (for character and viewer alike). In Babak Anvari’s chilling and brilliant Iranian horror, shadows are cast from all angles as a mother and child struggle to stay in the light.
Set in Tehran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) are attempting to adapt to a post-revolution life; pressures ranging from lost dolls to missile strikes. It is beyond counter-intuitive – but in keeping with horror tradition – that it is in fact the former which is to be feared most. This is due to the third mounting threat presented throughout the film: the appearance and invasion of a wicked spirit known as a “Djinn”. Originating from Arabian and later Islamic mythology, Djinns have habits of theft (things most dear to you), inducing hallucinations (things you fear most)… Oh, and murder.
Though the inherent macabre nature of these phantoms cannot be denied, they have a deeper allegorical fear factor that’s all too real. Routed in Islamic tradition (“They’re even in the Quran!”) and veiled in a light cloth, there is an obvious link to the oppressive nature of the Hijab and Chador. This is a theme throughout: utterances of terms such as “morals” are used only to shame, chastise and silence women. Even the sight of a mother and child running frantically down a dark street at night is not met with concerns for their safety, but instead for their modesty.
At the heart of – and constantly at odds with – all the turmoil contextually present in the film, is the mother-daughter relationship of Shideh and Dorsa. As they are progressively abandoned by their neighbours (out of fear of missile strike), the pair become isolated and claustrophobic; their relationship wanes and tensions rise. This is until, however, the spirit descends, bringing with it such fear as to subvert the role of mother and daughter. Shideh clings to her child not to protect her, but so she can herself cower from the torment.
All these complex themes are handled with such grace, and shot with such precision, that feelings of pure fear are often swapped for pure admiration. This, paired with two excellent central performances makes Under the Shadow a truly great contemporary horror.