In 1985 Tehran, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former revolutionary, fails to be reinstated in university because of her illicit anti-establishment past. But Shideh is not merely a wearied archetype.
She is a mother and a wife and deeply troubled by something, perhaps something pertaining to her restrained ability for agency evidenced by her introduction and subsequent interactions with males in her community. She has issues sleeping, not surprising given her family is awoken at night by sirens signalling potential military danger. She is a fighter packed into a box, sealed with Xs of tape.
Her character is more nuanced than the words above can give credit. This is because a lot of Shideh’s character is expressed through Rashidi’s weighted expressions and actions throughout the house. Her words, in arguments with her husband, carry multiple meanings. Her goals appear clear but are rendered complicated by an array of external forces acting upon her.
Among this exploration of a suppressed protagonist—indeed, she spends much of the film trapped inside her home, condensed to claustrophobic depth by extreme telephoto lenses—we get talk of evil genies and a mute boy who somehow speaks stories of these Djinn to Shideh’s daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshedi).
Beyond this, we get a looming and unseen threat of damage to their home in the form of rumors of Iraq’s plan to level Tehran with missiles. When Shideh’s husband (Bobby Naderi) gets drafted to provide medical assistance to soldiers, this threat becomes at once more distant and more ominous. However, as the film takes place in a knowable past, this distancing is merely an ironic foreshadowing of what is to come.
The film, through its child character, conflates the supernatural danger of a lurking Djinn with the very real danger of military air raids. It is an intriguing association in that both are unseen and are cause for disappearances, in one case with the girl’s doll and in the other with her father.
In fact, the two dangers are interrelated: it is the reliance on fear of one to alleviate the fear of the other. The terror, then, is a psychological one. It is projection of one false fear in attempts to cope with a real threat. The child is caught up in a fear of Djinn that threatens her safety when she prioritizes that fear over the militaristic one, one she likely does not understand. A neighbor enables such a supernatural preoccupation and attempts to convince the skeptical Shideh of its reality as well.
Thus brings another fascinating piece of the puzzle: Shideh’s fears are aligned with neither the supernatural nor the human. She refuses to believe in the Djinn and refuses to leave Tehran during this dangerous time. Her fears are, instead, personal. There is a fear of her ability to be what she wishes to be and a fear for the well-being of her daughter. In essence, her fear is a grounded one in an environment that is in upheaval. Only in flashes, through nightmares, can we see her own psychological fear.
Under the Shadow is quiet with a pulse. Tensions build as items of comfort disappear and the people around our lead characters do the same. The intelligence in the mirrored design may sacrifice scares, but the film remains disconcerting in its silence and terrifying in its bitter reality. It uses social commentary—gender and historical commentaries, to be specific—as not a blatant tool for a political piece by as a backdrop from which a uniquely disquieting horror experience can be extracted.
Under the Shadow: A-
As my above review makes clear, Under the Shadow is not only a magnificent horror film; it is a magnificent film. For fans of the modern Hollywood horror film, it may progress too slowly with not enough payoff at the climax (which is choreographed with furious grace, in my opinion). And this is a fair assessment. Those looking for that will likely be disappointed. Call it “art horror” or “horror lite” if you like, it is still a wonderful film worth seeing.
Under the Shadow is currently available to rent on Amazon Video here.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)