It’s been said that the German film Nosferatu was created, at least in part, to exorcise the ghosts of World War I. If there is any truth in that, then Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow does something similar. Under the Shadow takes place during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. The Iranian Revolution that changed the country into a theocratic regime happened not even a few years ago and the people of Iran, particularly Tehran in Under the Shadow, suffer through constant missile attacks from Saddam Hussein.
Enter Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student and mother who can no longer continue her studies due to her involvement with “subversive political groups” before the Revolution. There is tension between her and her husband, a doctor named Iraj (Bobby Naderi): a combination of the usual couple arguments, combined with the anxiety of being bombed, and the strain of having a relationship and Shideh wanting a modicum of power and support under a patriarchal regime. In fact, there is tension throughout the entirety of the film: watching the fear of the family hiding in their apartment’s bomb shelter, waiting for the next bomb to drop, wondering if Iraj will die on the battlefront he’s stationed at, and even one heart-stopping moment when Shideh leaves with their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) in a panic and accidentally forgets her hajib: a moment where corporal punishment becomes a truly grim possibility.
And this doesn’t even cover the Jinn.
According to Middle-Eastern mythology Jinn are spirits made of air. In the Quran, they are like humans except while humans are, arguably, made of earth, jinn are made of air. They coexist alongside humanity in various ways, and they and angels were made with humanity. The Jinn in Under the Shadow are not kindly ones. They exist in, and feed off of fear and anxiety. They travel through the desert wind. They are creatures of air and as such affect oxygen, dreams, and the perceptions of the mind. If they gain an object special to a human being, they will haunt them until they possess and destroy them. However, in Under the Shadow possession has a whole other kind of connotation.
Under the Shadow in a lot of ways might as well be called Under the Veil. The Jinn are metaphorical for the gaslighting, insecurities perpetuated on women and the need for authority to control women and their bodies. They also represent the chaos of war and uncertainty of death. In the film they constantly prey on Shideh’s and Dorsa’s relationship made fraught by the patriarchy around them. It’s also no coincidence that one of the Jinn uses constant misogynist slurs against Shideh in the form and voice of her husband, and another takes on the form of an embroidered veil and shawl that threatens to consume both Shideh and Dorsa: symbolizing perhaps the internalized misogyny of a neighbour and a terrifying sense of superstition that institutionalized religion in Iran during this does nothing to alleviate, but only worsen. In fact, it becomes clear in a lot of ways that they are a part of it.
In addition patriarchy, oppressive regimes, and war have another thing in common with Anvari’s Jinn. They all take pieces of a person’s life away, meaningful objects like a medical text given by a wishful mother, or a child’s doll. They threaten to steal innocence and all the good in your life, tainting it with violence and trauma until nothing is left. The sudden, terrifying jump scares of the Jinn, the bomb alarms, and the bombings are somehow made a minor part of the horror that these Jinn represent in this film.
As a child of the 1980s myself, it is sobering to see the life that another family had in another place and culture at this time. The Jane Fonda exercise tapes that Shideh uses to lose herself on her illegal VCR really hits that home that a different life was happening in Iran than in other places. If Nosferatu was an attempt to exorcise the spirits of war from post-WWI Germany, then Under the Shadow is an attempt to reveal the supposedly invisible forces behind the Iran-Iraq War and life in Tehran at time, to give understanding to us instead of allowing the Jinn to take more away. This was an excellent international film and the Toronto After Dark chose it well.