Ayatollah Khomeini's portrait gazes over an Iranian bureaucrat and a woman sitting opposite him, slouched in deference. It's Tehran in 1988, and Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a young married mother, wishes to resume her medical training. Shideh began medical school at the encouragement of her recently-deceased mother, but was suspended for being “politically active.”
This violation marks her forever, the bureaucrat explains. She can never go back. Though it's daytime and the office is well-lit, her black hijab might as well be made of shadow.
In Under the Shadow, the need to hide things takes on sinister undertones. Shideh may be a progressive woman under her hijab, but in Islamic society she's constantly reminded to cover things up. Not only her body, when in public; she must also remember to hide her contraband VCR when she's not (illegally) doing Jane Fonda's Workout. When her apartment building's garage door isn't shut properly, the landlord assumes it was Shideh's fault. It takes a man's strength to work the latch, he complains to her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and besides, Shideh is the only woman in the building who drives.
The Iran-Iraq war has forced Iraj, a practicing doctor, into conscripted service. He must leave Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) just as air raids threaten to level the city. Iraj implores Shideh to take Dorsa to his parents' home outside the city, but Shideh resists. Perhaps she's reached her limit of being told by men what she can and cannot do. Or maybe she's resentful of Dorsa's doll, a gift from her father and the only thing that seems to bring her comfort; Shideh needs to show she can protect her child without a man's help.
Shortly after Iraj's departure, an enormous bomb lands on their building, penetrating the roof without exploding. Someone dies, but they weren't killed by debris, a relative explains – they died of fright, from something only they could see. When the unexploded bomb is removed by a crane, a giant hole remains in the roof. This, too, is covered up, by a tarp held down with rocks.
Tenants whisper that the building has been invaded by djinn, supernatural creatures of Islamic mythology who travel with the wind. Maybe they rode in with the bomb? This might explain why Shideh's personal items are going missing. Or why Dorsa whispers in empty rooms. As people flee the apartment building amidst intensifying air raids, Dorsa's behavior grows stranger while Shideh begins having trouble distinguishing her bizarre dreams from waking life.
Under the Shadow has earned comparisons to The Babadook, Jennifer Kent's acclaimed 2014 horror film. There are superficial similarities – both lower-budget films involve a mother and her precocious child, fending off supernatural forces in their homes. But while The Babadook's monster represented one character's personal grief, Shideh's anxieties speak for an entire class of people, lending the film's scares added weight and dimension.
Despite the strong social subtext, Under the Shadow is first and foremost an effective, well-made horror film. First-time director Babak Anvari makes an asset of his low budget, building a sense of atmosphere and dread before we see anything strange. In fact we see very little of the djinn (if that's what they are), but every instance counts, and the film relies on practical effects over CG. Anvari also shows how a simple, well-timed use of the camera can be the most effective choice – in one scene the camera rotates unexpectedly as Shideh sits up in bed, drawing us into her disorientation. In another, as Shideh and Dorsa trudge away from a bomb shelter in exhaustion, their shadows seem to have weight of their own, dragging up the steps behind them.
As Shideh, Narges Rashidi is convincingly fierce – she refuses to dim her spirit, in spite of being stuck between a war and a society indifferent to her gender's aspirations. Perhaps this is what attracted the djinn's punishment. Under the Shadow is so effective because the fear grows out of our empathy for Shideh and what she faces – not just in her haunted apartment, but also whatever awaits her when the war is over. Rashidi and Anjari deserve admiration for making such a terrifying image of a loose hijab, billowing in the wind.