Under the Shadow tells two horror stories. One involves a woman who is afraid of how her society will marginalize her daughter and remove any prospect of a prosperous future. The other looks at an ongoing war that tears apart a country and sends its citizens into a state of constant fear. Writer-director Babak Anvari cleverly weaves the two together with a supernatural tale involving djinn, and it makes Under the Shadow a movie that will not only get under your skin, but also eager to learn more about the history and culture depicted in the film.
Set during the Iraq-Iran war, the movie follows Shideh (Narges Rashidi), who has been bluntly told she won’t get to complete her medical training and fulfill her recently deceased mother’s dying wish. Shideh was politically active during the Cultural Revolution, and even though she recanted, the university in Tehran won’t accept her. Her husband, who kept quiet during the revolution, now works as a doctor, but has been deployed to another city leaving Shideh alone with their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). As the city faces nightly bombing raids, Dorsa falls ill and Shideh is beset with increasingly nightmarish dreams, and both mother and daughter may be victims of djinn coming into their lives.
Anvari had me at a disadvantage in the best way because I don’t know enough about the Iran-Iraq war, the specifics of Iranian culture, or other elements that give his film specificity. Yes, we all know that war is bad and that women in Iran have to wear burkas, but Anvari sets up a milieu that’s specific to his movie and doesn’t try to water down his picture in an attempt to make it more universal. Instead, he sends us out of the theater wanting to learn more about the conflict even though most of the action is confined to Shideh’s apartment.
The supernatural horror aspect is simply the genre where his story fits best, and like all great supernatural horror stories, the supernatural aspect is almost besides the point. To make a recent comparison (and to a film that also played at Sundance), Under the Shadow is similar to the The Babadook in that it’s not really about the monster; it’s about what the monster represents in the relationship between a mother and child. For Shideh, she won’t get to fulfill her mother’s wish and she’s concerned about the relationship she’ll have with her own daughter. What kind of hope can she give to Dorsa when they live in a country that treats women and political dissidents so poorly?
And if the future isn’t bleak enough, they have to live with a horrific present of being bombed daily by Iraq. This is life for Iranian women: insulted by their own country and attacked by others. That’s the real horror lurking in between djinn attacks in Under the Shadow, and it gives the film a distinct personality and lurking terror that goes far beyond the bumps in the night.
In fact, the weakest aspect of Under the Shadow is the supernatural element, which relies primarily on jump scares. Anvari doesn’t constantly claw at your nerves, but instead just sets us up for the next loud noise from outside the window or under the bed. The reason he’s allowed to get away with it is because it ultimately serves a far more thoughtful film that actually has deep, interesting subtext. I didn’t particularly enjoyed being scared in Under the Shadow, but I enjoyed why I was being scared.
Click here to catch up on all of our Sundance 2016 coverage thus far, and peruse our other reviews below.
- Captain Fantastic
- The Free World
- The Fundamentals of Caring
- The Hollars
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Love & Friendship
- The Lure
- Manchester by the Sea
- Morris from America
- Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
- Other People
- Sing Street
- Southside with You
- Swiss Army Man