Under The Shadow (Zir-e Sayeh)

UK/Iran (2016) Dir. Babak Anvari

Iran in the 1980’s might seem an unlikely setting for a horror film, let alone a British produced one, but this debut from exiled Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari is not your average horror film. Lest we forget that Iran was a war torn country with neighbouring Iraq at that point and if horror and psychological trauma is apropos to any situation it would be war.

Anvari fully realises this but has other agendas behind the making this film, casting a safely cynical eye about the patriarchal oppression of women under Sharia Law. At the centre of this chilling yarn is Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a married mother who wants to resume her medical studies but her old university refuses her entry due to her political activism during the fighting.

Meanwhile Shideh’s doctor husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is called up to provide medical aid outside of Tehran, leaving Shideh to look after their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone. When a missile hits the upper floor of the apartment block, Shideh and Dorsa both experience bizarre nightmares, which Dorsa is convinced is caused by malevolent spirits. Shideh is reluctant to agree until things begin to get very weird about their flat.

The spirits in question are called Djinn, a supernatural legend from Islamic and Arabian folklore, but curiously, Dorsa heard about them from the orphaned boy recently moved into the block, Mehdi (Karam Rashayda). When hiding during a shell attack, Mehdi whispers something in Dorsa’s ear and gives her a charm to protect her from the Djinn, but Shideh throws it away.

You might be forgiven for thinking this reads like every other vengeful spirit horror film but Anvari has an ace up his sleeve to offset this – the socio-political aspect of his former country which admittedly is laid on pretty thick. The first instance of this being a major factor is in Iraj’s success as a doctor while Shideh is constantly denied this opportunity, and is expected to sit back and be a mum while the man goes out to earn the wage.

It is revealed that Shideh’s mother wanted her daughter to be a doctor which even Iraj scoffs at, claiming his wife is simply living her mother’s dream and not her own, which would probably be denied anyway. After her last rejection, Shideh throws out all her medical books save for the one given to her by her mother, which later plays a symbolic role in the torment Shideh endures at the hands of the Djinn.

Arguably the most frustration aspect of Shideh being put in her place as a mere woman comes when she is arrested from running out into the street during a shelling with a headscarf. She is scolded by the local Imam, boorishly informing Shideh that she should fear exposing herself more than being hit by a bomb. Charming!

Despite this, Shideh is a strong willed, independently minded woman who takes each challenge as it comes, and for the sake of her daughter she must remain strong. But even the constant bombardment of realistic nightmares and unexplained occurrences can break the strongest of wills. Anvari gradually builds up a litany of circumstantial torment against Shideh that climaxes in an all out assault.

It begins when Dorsa loses her doll Kimia, which her father said would always protect her, and Shideh cannot find for love or money. Dorsa’s nightmares get worse and her behaviour more antagonistic towards her mother, siding with a woman only she can see over Shideh. It is not long before this chador clad spirit becomes a fixture inside Shideh’s imagination, along with a naked old man who appears via the crack in the ceiling.

The war setting affords Anvari the perfect opportunity to misled the audience as to when something horrific is about to occur. When the lights go out in the apartment the first time we assume this is the spirits’ doing, but it is in fact the warning of an incoming missile attack. Once we are accustomed to this, Anvari now has this routine to tamper with and expertly tease our expectations.

As the film progresses however, Anzari is not beyond employing the odd jump scare just to test our nerve, but is clever enough to place it within a context that something innocuous can be equally alarming. In the same vein as The Babadook the physical manifestations of the Djinn are shrouded in darkness and limited to vague, fleeting glimpses, proving hugely effective rather than a full reveal.

Borrowing from the J-Horror classics of the late 90’s, this is a film that creates an unnerving atmosphere through silence and the strong performances of the cast, with the added persistent threat of death from living in a war zone. When the Djinn strike the camera is always on the move to relay the chaos and desperation Shideh experiences, bolstered by the sharp editing to distort fantasy from reality.

German based Iranian actress Narges Rashidi makes for a convincing and engaging lead protagonist, easy to sympathise with but not in the conventional sense. She has a ballsy quality about her in refusing to play victim against both the hidebound conventions of her society and the Djinn. Avin Manshadi is another child actress who is startlingly great in her role and we hope isn’t too traumatised by what her character goes through.   

For a debut effort, Anzari acquits himself rather well in the director’s chair, perhaps not quite breaking any new ground stylistically but certainly aware of what to do and what not to do. At just 80 minutes, Anzari packs a lot into this perfunctory run time yet constructs a compelling story that builds from nothing and ends on a breathless note.

If the political and social commentary of Under The Shadow passes you by or simply doesn’t appeal then fear not, as there is a deftly crafted supernatural tale surrounding it that has all the right ingredients to keep you sufficiently spooked and invested.

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