Under the Shadow – Review by Sally Watson-Jones

Thanks to Flatpack for the invite to review Under The Shadow which will be available on Netflix.

This horror from Iranian director Babak Anvari was a hit at the Sundance film festival and it’s not difficult to see why. More than just shock and schlock, Under the Shadow illuminates the real life horror taking place in Iran in the 80s.

Set in 1988, the film centres around a young family living in a flat in Tehran during some of the worst bombing in the Iraq Iran war. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is trying to negotiate her return to studying medicine, but her political activism during the cultural revolution means the men in charge won’t allow it. When her husband, also a Doctor, is sent to the frontline, Shideh is left to look after her six-year-old daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshandi) while the bombs fall on the capital. When a shell hits the apartment Shideh and Dorsa live in but doesn’t explode, things start to get scary. Although the films takes a while to build up to this point, the atmosphere of oppression and constant threat of destruction from the sky ensures that you never get too comfortable.

Alongside the terror of the war, Under the Shadow also reflects the oppression women faced, and still face, in Iran. The film was shot outside the country to get around censorship laws, due to the restrictions on how women can be depicted. Shideh is seen out of her veil and exercising (to Jane Fonda videos, obviously), something that wouldn’t have been allowed had the film been made in Iran. Throughout the film, Shideh is asked to cover up part of herself; her hair, her body, her desire to be a Doctor, her anger, her past. Her husband cannot understand why she can’t forget her career, even as he prepares to leave for the frontline, risking his life because refusal would mean he would no longer be able to practise medicine. But Shideh’s anger and frustration will not dissipate, will not be covered by a veil and she won’t be happy being a wife and mother, a role chosen for her by biology and grumpy men who are allowed to show everyone their bald patches.

The things that go bump (and scrape, and smash, and scream) in the night criticise Shideh’s parenting skills and try to turn her own daughter against her, telling her she’d be better off with them. And to be fair, you can see why Dorsa might be convinced. Her father is gone, maybe never coming back, her home is being attacked and her mother is always in a bad mood. Under the Shadow offers more than enough spooks and even bits where you might embarrass yourself by shrieking in public to be a successful horror; that is, bloody terrifying and definitely not something to watch on your own in the dark unless you particularly fancy sleeping with all the lights on. What makes it even more successful, alongside the fantastic acting, especially from Rashidi and Manshandi, is the way it sets out plainly the everyday, mad-made terror that happened, and still is happening. This is the real horror of the film, and what should really keep you awake in the dark.

Sally Watson-Jones
Arts Editor, Grapevine Birmingham.

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