The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

War Is The True Terror In Iranian Ghost Story 'Under The Shadow'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 7, 2016 2:40PM

Narges Rashidi in "Under the Shadow." (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.)

Symbolic and perhaps literal ghosts haunt an apartment complex in Under the Shadow, an effective slow-burner of a horror film set in the 1980s at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.

The movie feels authentic to the Iranian experience. Writer-director Babak Anvari drew upon his memories of growing up in the country, including his early childhood during the war. But Anvari is a London-based filmmaker and shot this—his first feature film—in Jordan. No doubt the movie's pointedly critical portrait of Iran's harsh, post-revolution environment, particularly in terms of treatment of women, would have made it potentially dangerous, if not impossible, to shoot in Iran, even under its comparatively less extreme current leadership.

As the movie takes place mainly in apartment interiors, the shooting probably could have been done anywhere. Influenced by Roman Polanski's "apartment trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant), Anvari creates a similar sort of psychological prison for his protagonist, Shideh, a mother recently rejected for readmission to medical school due to her political activism before the revolution. A school authority, clearly disapproving of her ambition, delivers the news coldly as a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini hangs in the background. As they talk, we see a bomb drop and explode from a distance through the school official's window. It's a striking opening scene that immediately connects the political and the personal.

Crushed at having her dream derailed, Shideh is also angered by her husband's lack of empathy. When he is called away for military service, she's left to care for their young, somewhat spoiled daughter Dorsa while the war creeps ever closer to their Tehran home. As the bombing intensifies, so do the anxieties in the apartment complex. A new, supposedly mute neighbor boy tells Dorsa stories of djinn (evil spirits) and soon the young girl is claiming to see one herself. Shideh writes it off to stress... at first.

The dynamics of war and female oppression are too central to the movie to call them subtext. Shideh is indeed under more than one shadow. When seemingly supernatural occurrences lead her to run out of the apartment in a panic without her head covering, Dorsa in her arms, security forces don't come to her rescue. Instead, they bring her in for questioning after stopping her in the street. One of the soldiers asks, in an accusatory tone, "What is this look? Are we in Europe now?"

But if Anvari is intent on keeping recent (and to a large extent ongoing) history at the forefront, he does not cheat those looking for a good scare. Whether the ghost in the movie is real or imagined is up to the viewer, but the filmmaker makes the appearance of the specter both very simple and surprisingly frightening. Let's just say linens are put to good use.

Taking time to effectively build to the scares, Under the Shadow creates vivid characters and lives up to Iranian cinema's reputation for high-quality social realism. Take away the supernatural elements and this could easily have been an involving domestic drama in the vein of the Oscar-winning A Separation.

Much of the weight of the movie's emotional conviction falls on lead actress Narges Rashidi, and she carries it skillfully. Rashidi conveys Shideh's empathetic qualities, but also her off-putting, prideful isolation in rejecting her husband's attempts to smooth things over. She's a confident enough actress to keep the audience on her side without requiring us to love her every moment.

Anvari also shows directorial confidence in switching from an almost docudrama approach to nightmarish fantasy techniques without a jarring stylistic shift. And he knows that in horror, simple objects can pack a powerful punch. In this talented new director's hands, a nondescript child's doll and a bedspread's sudden movement can take on as much menace as a bomb falling through a ceiling.

Under the Shadow. Written and directed by Babak Anvari. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi and Bobby Naderi. 84 mins. In Persian with English subtitles. Rated PG-13.

Opens Friday, Oct. 7 at Facets Cinémathèque.