United Kingdom/Jordan/Qatar, 2016. Directed by Babak Anvari. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi. 84 minutes. ★★★★
Life in Tehran, the capital of Iran, was dangerous in the late ’80s, caught between the repressive regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni and the destruction of the seemingly-endless war with Iraq (as Saddam Hussein prepares to pelt Iranian targets, including Tehran, with Scud missiles). Air-raid sirens are a familiar sound; innocuous luxuries such as a Betamax recorder and Jane Fonda workout video must remain out of sight, lest one gain the attention of the wrong authorities. Against such a backdrop, the horrors of a supernatural monster might seem almost mundane.
That’s the environment in which Under the Shadow, the début feature from writer/director Babak Anvari, plays out. When Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor living comfortably in a Tehran apartment block, is called to the front to tend to the causualties of war, his wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) must raise their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone. Iraj’s departure coincides with the apparent arrival of a djinn, a malevolent spirit, seeking to do harm to the building’s residents; and it seems particularly interested in Dorsa.
We recognize this archetype, the fiercely defensive mother-figure fighting to protect her young, and Under the Shadow has earned several comparisons to The Babadook, the current “reigning” definitive treatment of the trope. Both films use its monster as a metaphor for larger issues, and neither shies away from the darker aspects of parent-child relationships.
But Under the Shadow’s subtext possesses a few more layers than we might expect from a horror film. Danger besets Shideh and Dorsa from all sides, with one peril feeding into the next. If it’s not the djinn, it’s the threat of the missiles (and the film’s most affecting shot depicts a Scud having broken through the roof of a top-floor apartment), and if it’s not the missiles, it’s the culture. We may breathe a sigh of relief when Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees the haunted block of flats, but our hearts almost immediately sink when we realize Shideh forgot to don her hijab first.
While Anvari subjects his ideas to complex development, his visual style relies a bit too much on the fundamentals, deploying jump-scares and “it was all a dream!” fakeouts several times too often. That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have visual merits, and his use of peculiar camera angles to emphasize the off-kilter nature of a situation that’s already skewed to begin with stands out. He also indulges in a few creative visual set-pieces, memorably imbuing a simple head-scarf with a sense of palpable menace.
Under the Shadow provides a valuable window into a culture and time period not familiar to most Western audiences, and is quite excellent (even if it didn’t blow my mind as I’d hoped). As a fresh new talent, Babek Anvari has announced himself as someone to watch and I look forward to his future work.