The culprit at the heart of the terrors of Babak Anvari’s debut horror feature “Under The Shadow” is a djinn, a supernatural creature that is more popularly known as a “genie.” But this is hardly the benevolent wish-granting spirit of the famous “Thousand And One Nights” tale of Aladdin and his magic lamp; in fact, there are no wishes made or granted in this film at all. Instead, this genie is a more sinister force that simply festers in an environment marked by fear and anxiety. The generalized threat doesn’t really evolve much beyond than that; certainly, there’s none of the conceptual complexity of the storybook villain at the heart of Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” to which Anvari’s film bears some thematic similarities.
Even if the supernatural elements feel half-baked, Anvari’s film compensates by giving those elements a surprising amount of metaphorical depth. “Under the Shadow” is set in the tail end of the Iran-Iraq War that was waged between the two Middle Eastern countries from 1980 to 1988, a time marked in Iran not only by the constant threat of violence from Iraq — most harrowingly represented in this film by a missile that crashes through an apartment building’s ceiling — but also by civil unrest that led to a hardening of the government’s domineering rule. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is one of the victims of that repression: At the beginning of the film, a medical-school administrator flatly denies her the ability to resume her medical studies because of her recent history of anti-government political activism.
Shideh is, in fact, quite progressive in her behavior at home, refusing to wear her chador, and working out to bootleg Jane Fonda videos in a society that outlaws such supposedly decadent Western entertainment. Unfortunately, such private gestures are the only avenues of rebellion possible for her. It’s bad enough that she’s unable to realize her dream of becoming a doctor; at one point in the film, she’s even arrested and threatened with severe punishment when she carelessly runs outside without being properly covered by her chador (“What is this look? Are we in Europe now?” a soldier sneers upon seeing her). Anvari peppers his film with many such eye-opening moments of cultural oppression; if anything, “Under The Shadow” is even more effective as social criticism than it is as a genre piece.
It’s also more effective as a character study — or, more specifically, the study of a female character whose quiet, seething resentment at a society that oppresses her could arguably be a major contributing factor to the fear and anxiety that has brought this djinn into her life in the first place. Certainly, Shideh — who initially gave up her medical studies before the revolution in order to care for her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) — can’t help but be reminded of her inability to finish medical school when she sees her doctor husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), carrying on the kind of successful career she has craved. Her anger is understandable, but it often threatens to pop out in her interactions with Dorsa, in which she begins to show mounting impatience especially as they both become more haunted by the djinn: Shideh with unnerving dreams, Dorsa with the sudden disappearance of her precious doll Kimia — the latter a signal, so says a neighbor, of a force that simply won’t leave them alone.
Shideh’s desire to be a good mother thus complicates her professional and personal bitterness — and this is exactly the kind of anxiety that the djinn exploits. One dream sequence halfway through the film offers a hint of the film’s more psychological side, in which her husband — who is away at war, having been drafted by the Iranian government to serve in the army — pops up next to her in bed and calls her “useless” before attacking her. But it’s the djinn’s manipulations during the film’s last 20 minutes in trying to turn Dorsa against her that crystallizes the impression that this malevolent spirit is as much an expression of maternal insecurity as of a repressive society.
To Anvari’s credit, none of these connections between introspective terror and supernatural intrigue are spelled out; all are left as free-floating subtext, the way subtext often does in the best horror films. “Under The Shadow” isn’t exactly mold-breaking as a genre exercise, offering the usual quotient of tense atmosphere and jump scares, with the odd camera angle and freaky vision to add occasional visual interest to a film otherwise marked by its restraint. But though the film doesn’t quite overwhelm as horror, the thematic implications are dense enough in this case that it ends up leaving a lingering aftertaste anyway. More memorable than its evil genie is its portrait of a mother struggling between her maternal and feminist instincts, and of a society as a whole struggling between repression and modernization — both, if other recent modern-day Iranian films are any indication, are struggles that continue today. [B]