Director: Babak Anvari
Writer: Babak Anvari
Stars: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi
By now, most of us are inculcated with Shakespeare’s most (arguably) famous line from The Tempest: “What’s past is prologue.” But in cinema, what is past is actually present. Under the Shadow tells the story of an infamous period in world history: the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. For a film set within this timeframe, the literal horror experienced by the film’s characters is perhaps the most poignant commentary about war in the modern era. The metaphorical demons of the past continue to haunt the the Libyas, Iraqs, and Syrias of a post-Arab Spring Middle East. But to tell the stories of today, Under the Shadow reminds us of the consequences that forever changed the lives of Iranians and their country’s standing on the world stage.
Shideh, played by Narges Rashidi, is mother to young daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. Shideh’s husband, a doctor, is tasked by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to service soldiers wounded from heavy fighting. Against her husband’s wishes, Shideh opts to stay with her daughter in their apartment complex despite evacuations by neighbors and daily air raids that are destroying nearby buildings.
Within days of her husband’s hiatus, Shideh’s building is rattled by the destruction of a neighbor’s apartment. Shideh attends to her startled neighbors, only to find an unexploded Iraqi missile lying in the middle of the living room. An elderly man remains seated on a chair, just feet from the ordnance, who has seemingly died from shock or a heart attack.
The appearance of Djinn within war-torn Tehran serves as an apt metaphor for the ideological divide that will solidify Iran’s label as an anti-West, terrorist state. But Under the Shadow stays away from such explicit commentary and instead focuses on two female protagonists as the ultimate victims of a repressed society. Shideh was in medical school before the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and his rejection of Western and Liberal values. Women were subjected to the home, where ironically Shideh is forced because of war. But the ultimate terror is what happens within the home, manifested by the metaphor of the Djinn. Outside, Shideh is no longer a true citizen of Iran. She is a woman,reduced to the second class and menial work. Inside her home, she is no better, if not worse.
This story succeeds not only with its execution of real fear, but also an achievement of great character studies that involve strong women persevering through grueling situations. It echoes last year’s renowned The Babadook,about a mother and her son coping with the loss of her husband. In The Babadook, fear, loss, and anger is manifested through a demon-like figure, feeding off the protagonists’ inability to cope. A similar theme runs through Under the Shadow, but fear, loss, and anger is wrapped into a societal problem that wishes to destroy Shideh and generations like her daughter’s. 30-somethng years after the fall of the Shah, young girls like Dorsa are becoming their mothers not out of will but oppression, a fear too real even for the Djinn that lurk within their walls.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality