It is easy to see why Babak Anvari’s chilling horror debut, Under the Shadow, is drawing comparisons to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. The protagonist of both films are mothers who, thanks to circumstances out of their control, find their sanity pushed to the brink. While Kent’s film uses a storybook boogieman to explore themes of depression and post-traumatic stress, Anvari’s supernatural entity serves as a metaphor for the haunting nature of female repression.
Despite the loose similarities in structure, Under the Shadow has its own unique and intriguing story to tell. Set during the Iran-Iraq War, which took place between 1980 to 1988, the film offers a chilling portrayal of a society under constant threat of danger. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) wants nothing more than to fulfill her late mother’s wishes of going to medical school. Unfortunately, due to her past political activism, she is advised at the beginning of the film that she will never be able to resume her studies. Adding salt to the wounds is the fact that she is expected to do all the traditional motherly duties, including caring for her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), while her doctor husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), leaves for weeks at a time on medical assignments.
Despising the fact that her husband serves as a constant reminder of the double standards of their society, Shideh becomes frustrated with the way her life is going. She begins to feel like a prisoner who longs to break free of the metaphorical prison her apartment complex has become. It does not help matters that Dorsa begins to incessantly talk of Jinn, a supernatural being who seems determined to tear the two apart. As Shideh’s bitterness of being denied a career of her choosing seeps into her desires to be a good mother, Jinn’s presence becomes more prominent in both Shideh and Dorsa’s dreams. With the lines of reality increasingly blurred, and Jinn growing more powerful, Shideh must find a way to maintain her sanity and save both herself and Dorsa in the process.
Under the Shadow is one of those rare films that succeeds as a creepy ghost story, a thought-provoking meditation on the innocent victims of war, and a stirring commentary on the role of women in Iranian society. In one great sequence Shideh attempts to free Dorsa from Jinn’s grasp while literally being consumed by the overbearing weight of expectation that the chador brings. Anvari skillfully uses her rebellion to also bring attention to the harrowing nature of life in Iran during that era. In one of the film’s most iconic images, Shideh attempts to perform CPR on an elderly neighbour right in front of a bomb that came crashing through the roof. The cracks in the ceiling, not only represent the daily threat of bombings, but also the fractured society Shideh is stuck in.
Similar to the tape on the windows, whose purpose is to ensure the glass does not shatter as a result of the bombs, which is starting to peel, Under the Shadow offers a thrilling portrayal of a woman who is unraveling in a land that does not allow her live the life she wants. It is a ghost story that both earns its scares and leaves the viewer with plenty of food for thought in the process.