This Iranian Ghost Story is More Than Meets The Eye
Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari, 2016’s Under the Shadow premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival before being picked up by Netflix for distribution; and being selected for entry into Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (although it was not later nominated). Under the Shadow is essentially a ‘haunted house’ horror film that does little to break new ground in that category; but finds ways to transcend the genre by pairing a simple horror premise against a backdrop to promote social consciousness and spur commentary from audiences.
Much in the way that 2006’s Hitchaboo winning Pan’s Labyrinth paired a dark fantasy story against the backdrop of post-War Francoist Spain; Under the Shadow pairs a ‘haunted house’ story against the backdrop of 1980’s Tehran during the ‘War of the Cities’. For audiences unfamiliar with modern Iranian history, the ‘War of the Cities’ was a series of air raids instigated by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Air Force, and retaliated upon by an Iranian contingent; targeting major opposition cities during the Iran-Iraq war; with a goal of disrupting the morale of civilians.
Under the Shadow‘s archetypical plot centers on a family being haunted by some sort of spirit/ghost/monster; and the family’s child being the primary link and eventual key to defeating the monster. Audiences have seen this well-worn story over and over again, and other than some jumps and scares – there isn’t much added. However, Anvari, having lived through the ‘morale disrupting’ raids of the 1980s, has found a way, while keeping the horror front and center, to have it serve more as a commentary for how life was like in disrupted Tehran.
Anvari subverts this simple plot, and adds layers to the socially conscious premise by showing life through the eyes not only of a civilian in war torn Tehran, but through the eyes of a woman in male dominated Iranian culture. Under the Shadow stars Iranian-German actress Narges Rashidi as Shideh, wife of a local doctor who having been recently conscripted to the front lines, leaves Shideh alone with her young daughter Dorsa in a semi-abandoned Tehran.
The first thirty-odd minutes of Under the Shadow is a straightforward family drama set during wartime. Anvari deftly finds ways through both his writing and his directing to subtly turn this into a ghost story before audiences even know what has happened. Alone in an abandoned building with her daughter Dorsa after everyone else has fled for safety, a Djinn (supernatural demon from Islamic mythology) has taken hold over her and her daughter. Working on a limited budget, Anvari smartly pivots away from cheap thrills and CGI scares found in lesser horror films; instead focusing his attention on developing a general dread through tonal progression as the Djinn becomes bolder with its’ harassment of the female duo. Smarter still is how Anvari centers almost every scene into Shideh’s apartment; an apartment that becomes smaller and more claustrophobic as Iraqi bombs land closer outside, and the Djinn takes firmer hold of her family inside.
Babak Anvari writes Shideh as a complex, independent woman in a community that has no room for one. Shideh longs to fulfill her aspirations of becoming a doctor, but having participated in earlier revolutionary activities against the government, is banned from completing her final years of medical school. Instead, she has to watch from the sidelines as her husband gets to live her dream because he decided not to join her at the rallies during their school years. Shideh spends her time working out to Jane Fonda aerobics videos on a hidden (and government banned) VCR in their family room.
Lead actress Narges Rashidi pulls from her personal experiences as her family eventually fled Iran during the bombings of the 1980s war, and is a star as the multilayered Shideh. She lives in a culture that forbids women from showing bare skin in public, but walks around in the safety of her apartment in Westernized gym clothes. Rashidi’s Shideh has to subvert her own intellect and independence in public as she begs men in power for one last chance at school; but she has no qualms about speaking her unfiltered mind to her husband over his conscription. When attempting to flee her haunted apartment with her daughter Dorsa, she happens upon military police. Instead of giving her assistance, she is locked up and barely evades lashings for her less than modest appearance.
There is no peace for a self-reliant woman in this corner of the Islamic world. Rashidi’s Shideh highlights this inequality – while Iraq may have tried to disrupt Iranian life in the mid-80s, this was not a new concept to Iranian women. They have been disrupted by their male counterparts, and this continues today. It is an audacious film debut by the Iranian-based filmmaker Babak Anvari, and led by a particularly courageous performance by lead actress Narges Rashidi.
- Directing: 9/10 – Working on a modest budget, Anvari smartly executes this cramped thriller
- Screenwriting: 10/10 – Deceivingly simple, this is a shrewd assessment of modern Iran; peppering in subtle judgment on the subversion of women in a male dominated society
- Acting: 10/10 – Narges Rashidi owns this film as the complex Shideh in a culture with no room for women of her sort
9/10 – Under the Shadow is a cutting social commentary of the injustices in modern Iran, packaged as an innocuous ghost story. Deceptively simple, writer/director Babak Anvari executes his debut with uncanny skill, and finds a female lead in Narges Rashidi that is as astute onscreen as he is with his pen.