Where there is war, there is suffering. In the late eighties, Tehran lived under a shadow of fear which so permeated the fabric of society that to some who lived under it became background noise. As Shideh sat in the office of her former university director and appealed to him to be allowed to return to her studies, he did not even glance outside the window when a missile landed nearby as he told her that, as a political activist, there was not the slightest chance she would ever be readmitted.
“Maybe things will get better after the war,” her neighbour Mrs Fakur tells Shideh as she returns home, but having already dragged on for years, what if the war never ends? The support and sympathy of her husband Iraj, a doctor attached to the military, is limited: it was her choice to associate with the radicals, and furthermore she has waited until now to attempt a return despite the Cultural Revolution having taken place several years before.
Leaving for his new assignment in an area of heavy fighting, Iraj begs Shideh to take their daughter to the relative safety of his parents’ home but she stubbornly refuses even as the bombing intensifies and a missile strikes the building, killing an upstairs neighbour. In the turmoil, Dorsa’s behaviour becomes difficult, desperately hunting for her lost doll and insisting there is a presence in the house.
Mrs Ebrahimi, devout wife of the building owner, tells Shideh that a Djinn has attached itself to her family, and as the other tenants move out one by one leaving only Shideh and her fractious daugher, Shideh also begins to suffer from nightmares and waking visions of something terrible pushing through the cracks in the damaged ceiling.
The debut feature of writer/director Babak Anvari, both he and leading lady Narges Rashidi were born in Iran and left that regime at an early age, though the film is coloured by memories of those troubled times. Relatively liberated within the walls of her home with her videocassette recorder on which she watches her Jane Fonda workout every day, beyond those walls Shideh is powerless, and slowly that fortress is becoming compromised.
With Anvari having begun work on the script immediately following the success of his 2011 short Two & Two, long before the release of The Badabook, the parallels in theme and atmosphere are coincidental but undeniable, an isolated mother and her increasingly uncontrollable child, insomnia, grief, guilt, the doubt over whether what is happening is real, a delusion brought on by the circumstances of impossible stress, or is a genuine descent into hopeless madness.
The horror of war on the civilian population and the ghosts it stirs up has been used as a backdrop for horror before, by Guillermo del Toro in both El espinazo del diablo and El Laberinto del Fauno to name but two, but here there is an endemic state endorsed oppression already in place, and in response it is undeniably the women who dominate the film.
There is Mrs Ebrahimi (Aram Ghasemy) whose faith opens the door to a contagious terror, the educated and pragmatic Mrs Fakur (Soussan Farrokhnia) who looks upon the Djinn as a cultural construct of anthropological interest, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), with the unreasoning temper and demands of a child and the otherwise rational Shideh whose refusal to believe is of no comfort alone in the middle of the night.
Produced for a modest budget, the horror is created through the intense performances of Rashidi and London born Manshadi in her acting debut rather than throwing digital monsters on the screen; instead, for the most part, it is a noise in the night, a reflection of something which should not be there, a flicker of a smothering hijab waiting to abduct Dorsa or engulf Shideh.
With the door to new cultural arenas of horror having been opened in the past two years by such diverse films as Ana Lily Amirpour’s elegant A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Can Evrenol’s bloody Baskin, Under the Shadow may fall under the same umbrella but is like neither, and while the finale does not quite satisfy or resolve it is a worthy addition to this new movement, and we are fortunate to live in such times when such diverse films are produced and distributed.