I’m still thinking about this Iranian horror. It wasn’t a genre I knew about before A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night entered my life – my favourite film of last year. There are similarities between these two films, not stylistically but in their feminist subtext, although Girl delivers it much more subtly. And Under the Shadow is much more scary. I returned to my apartment afterwards and the quiet stairs and long corridors seemed disconcertingly like a carpeted version of the apartment block in the film.
Set in Tehran in the 80s during the Iran-Iraq war, Shideh (an enigmatic Narges Rashidi, as if The Girl had been transposed into a suburban family), has a husband and a young daughter, Dorsa. Shideh has been prevented from returning to university to complete her medical degree because of her political activism during the Cultural Revolution. We sense her seething resentment, channeled into Jane Fonda workouts and pushed down as she has tea parties with her daughter. She struggles to contain her frustration as her husband, a practicing doctor, has a freedom that seems to elude her.
The horror comes in the form of djinn, evil characters from children’s fairy tales that Shideh refuses to believe in, until she is forced to acknowledge that something is not quite right. Suspense is built beautifully, we know the scary moments are coming but we jump anyway. There was a beautiful moment when the whole cinema yelped. The framing is beautiful, the sets claustrophobic, the performances by Rashidi and Avin Manshadi as Dorsa completely engaging.
It was only afterward that I thought about the metaphor of this film, Shideh’s crisis of confidence and self worth. It casts the djinn in a different light, the horror perhaps not completely external, the ending a little more poignant.
Bechdel test – pass