Readers Write In #214: The haunting ‘Under the Shadow’ explores the female psyche in a war-torn Iran

Posted on July 2, 2020

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(by Vivaciously Yours)

I watched Bulbbul recently and that took me back to my experience with Under the Shadow directed by Babak Anvari. Set in the 1980’s in post-Revolution Tehran, the movie follows a mother Shideh, who is left alone to care for her daughter amidst the constant threats of bombings from Iraq. For the first 30 minutes you forget that you are supposed to be watching a horror flick, it’s your usual family drama. But there is more to it than what meets the eye- a movie filled with socio-political sub-texts about misogyny, family struggles, and the gloom of wartime than a psychological one.

The movie opens with Shideh who is forbidden from continuing her medical school citing her involvement in the cultural revolution. “Everyone was political then”, she says. This scene is staged so beautifully in the Dean’s office with a huge window between the two characters while the Dean denies her admission, a missile blasts in the background, we along with Shideh feel her dreams and life under attack. Shideh is viewed as nothing but a mother and daughter by the society and her husband who is a doctor finds her inept at the very same things. Shideh takes all her frustration out sweating her way through an illegal Jane Fonda workout video. She is filled with resentment, depressed and has a history of sleep-walking, and lives in a culture requiring her to wear a hijab. Her husband, a practicing physician, agrees to serve in the military inorder to keep his license, leaving behind Shideh and their daughter Dorsa.

Amidst the constant sirens, and the “X” marked tapes on the windows, the residents are always living on the edge and an unexploded missile pierces through their apartment’s roof. The residents, and Dorsa are all convinced that the missile brought along with it “djinn” spirits. The landlord’s wife tells Shideh, “ They travel on the wind, moving from place to place until they find someone to possess. Djinn are most active where there is fear and anxiety”. Are Dorsa’s nightmares about Djinn ust that- nightmares? Are there ghosts? Or is this a projection of horrors of life during a warfare? Or is it the redirection of the frustrations of a mother on her traumatised daughter? The movie moves effortlessly from being a haunted movie to becoming an allegory of female oppression and gives us a hybrid genre that you will remember for a long time.

I barely scratched the surface with my knowledge of the Iranian Revolution hearing lunchtime personal stories from a Iranian immigrant college mate and later on my coworker about how life was in a war-torn world with constant rattling of the sounds of explosion, and what the revolution did to the women and one doesn’t need to know the history to appreciate this movie. The movie is filled with symbolisms and metaphors, Hijab being one for oppression. In one of the scenes, Shideh rushes out the door with her daughter Dorsa to escape from the Djinn, only to be arrested by police for stepping out of the house without a hijab. The police officer tells her, “A woman should be scared of exposing herself more than anything else.” In the final act of the movie, the Djinn takes the shape of a monstrous Hijab. The Djinn itself is a symbol of evil that is born out of the turmoil of war, the horrors in the middle of uncertainty.

The scene when the missile pierces through the ceiling, Shideh is shown to do CPR on an old woman, and the shadow of the missile encompasses everyone present. It’s a fantastically shot scene and pretty much sums up the movie, Shideh is under the shadow of the war, of the Chador, and of patriarchy. Whether you want to view it as a spooky horror flick or a hybrid movie with social commentary, Under the Shadow will not fail to impress you……

Now Streaming on Netflix.