The Iran-Iraq War was a drawn out war of resources. It was draining in so many ways, a constant give-and-take that pressed so many people under the thumb of power.
Amidst these struggles was a battle for equal rights for the sexes. Women in Iran were stripped of their power in marriages, in careers, and even in how they dress. To be seen without your hijab was an offense punishable by fines and even beatings. These were very serious, hard times.
Atop of all these struggles, imagine that you also have to contend with a demon that is trying to kill your daughter. Where do you begin to manage your problems?
Under The Shadow is a film that tackles all these subjects—the Iran-Iraq War, the role of women in Iran, motherhood, relationships—as dark forces try to suffocate one’s desire to live an already troubled life. The film addresses these issues via young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) after getting kicked out of medical school for being too politically active. She defaults to stay-at-home mother status after her husband (the beyond beautiful, needed-to-be-topless Bobby Naderi) is drafted into the war. What becomes a pattern of living and fleeing war, running to the basement of their apartment complex to avoid getting bombed and emerging unscathed, evolves into a more dire metaphor when the war is ongoing inside your own apartment.
This all comes from Shideh’s daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) getting entangled with a jinn after a mysterious orphan boy moves into the complex. There is a classic Crazy Mother trope at play where the daughter and mother fight over unexplained accidents and actions in the house. The two do not trust each other and find their love strained. This stress evolves beyond casual discomfort to physical illness that constantly reminds Shideh that she was unable to pursue her (and her mother’s) dream of becoming a doctor as a result of her being a radical woman.
Admittedly, Under The Shadow shouldn’t work. There’s too much going on—gendered suppression, marital problems, parenting problems, war, religion, a demon—but the film succeeds because director Babak Anvari weaves these issues together with the demon. Instead of being an independent problem, the jinn becomes the manifestation of all the problems, the constant scratching in the night that is keeping a woman like Shideh awake, reminding her of all the work she has to do as a woman living in Iran.
Like Get Out and other politically motivated horror films, the movie is more of a drama of being in the world we live in. The film plays remarkably similar to The Babadook in that it’s about a single mother fighting to be understood. Where this film succeeds beyond Babadook is that the stakes are much higher: if Shideh isn’t going to be killed by the jinn, she will be killed by war.
There’s an elegance to the movie too. Anvari crafts a cadence by alarm sirens to illustrate the call and response of fight or flight that build to a taut, self-sufficient end. Careful watch will show how the apartment complex Shideh and Dorsa occupy changes from the movie’s start to finish, revealing how dangerous the situation is getting. Moreover, the final showdown with the monster is a strangely beautiful battle between domestic ephemera and the self. Is the war really with the demon or is the war with your place in society?
That’s what thrusts this film into an anxious something new: it’s a film wonderfully weighed down by reality, where the abnormal and fantasy offer a bit of a break from real issues that still are being fought today. Movies about war and Middle Eastern struggles are movies I am staunchly against (I find they typically celebrate supposed American excellence.), Under The Shadow shakes that bag of the genre out to relinquish all skeletons that might attach themselves to Middle Eastern narratives. The resulting work is a fast, palm sweating watch that reminds you that there is work to be done, that real terrors in this world are beyond demons.