Tehran, mid-1980s. In a rickety office, a man wearing a rumpled suit and the pursed face of a bureaucrat takes notes. He’s flanked by a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini on one side and the tremendous expanse of Tehran’s skyline on the other. He barely looks up as a chador-wrapped woman named Shideh begs to return to medical school despite her “naïve” support for leftist causes during the Cultural Revolution. “It was a mistake,” she pleads. “I didn’t know better.” Her attention is diverted as a bomb pierces the city. He doesn’t even notice, launches into a lecture about consequences.
In this theocratically patriarchic police state, Shideh doesn’t stand a chance. Following decades of secularism and expanded civil rights, Iran’s theologically fundamentalist Cultural Revolution rejected Western influence with an iron fist. Women weren’t just sent back to the kitchen, they were chained to it. Around this premise, first-time Writer-director Babak Anvari fashions one of the tightest and most politically charged horror movies in recent memory. When Shideh returns home, she removes her headscarf and locks away her most prized possession: a medical textbook inscribed with a loving note from her mother, a former doctor herself. Within the safety of her apartment, she wears whatever she wants, stands up to husband Iraj, and works out to Jane Fonda tapes. She even has a driver’s license.
But whenever she exerts her innate sense of personhood, nature pushes back. The first manifestation comes in the form of bombing raids that blanket the apartment in darkness. As rumors of impending Iraqi missiles send Iraj to the front lines (rumors Shideh pragmatically dismisses), Shideh is left to care for their daughter, Dorsa. And that’s where the real horrors penetrate her tiny liberal bastion.
Already beginning to crack thanks to Iraj’s denouncement of her most basic maternal responsibility, Shideh’s rationality comes under further attack when Dorsa insists that they’ve been targeted by djinn (ghouls or, more closely, genies), who have the power to possess and worse. Superficially, this kind of material might seem reactionary—demons correct Shideh’s misplaced faith in science. (Most famously, The Exorcist charged that single mothers risk inviting Satan into their homes and pubescent daughters.) But Anvari uses the threat of fundamentalist religion as a symbol for theocratic overreach. When Shideh oversteps her social function, the psychic toll is both internal and external. The “shadow” of the movie’s title holds a dual function too; there’s a hopelessness in Shideh’s efforts to impart her mother’s secular values onto a daughter raised in a world without logic.
Anvari’s movie is under a shadow of its own. In the 1990s, Iran was the source of the world’s most exciting movies. Led by giants like Abbas Kiarostami (who died earlier this year), the movement was subject to intense censorship and responded by rejecting classic formal techniques in favor of meta-textual flourishes. Under the Shadow retains the earlier generation’s braininess but burnishes its look and pace with glossy electricity. Balancing jump scares with slow-burning dread, it’s a solidly spooky effort—a strikingly political take on The Babadook.
In the opening crawl, the movie describes the Cultural Revolution and the Iraq-Iran War as “a period of darkness where fear and anxiety thrived.” Under the Shadow gets at those fears and anxieties in a way that crawls under the skin, but its lasting impact is in the head.
Under the Shadow. Written and directed by Babak Anvari. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, and Bobby Naderi. Opens in Kansas City October 7.