by Benjamín Harguindey
A remake of the Australian The Babadook (2014) – one of the few original indie horror films to break out into cult success these past few years – was almost bound to happen, but you probably thought you’d see the Hollywood version before Iran had a go at it. To be fair Under the Shadow (2016) isn’t exactly a remake, but it does take one too many cues from it.
Written and directed by Babak Anvari, the film is set in 1980s Tehran and stars Narges Rashidi as Shideh, a woman whose husband is called to the Iran-Iraq warfront and is left alone at their apartment to take care of their child. The air-raid sirens are sounded regularly as neighbors tape their windows to protect them from bomb blasts and flock to the basement of the apartment complex in fear.
Not only has Shideh internalized by now the constant fear of death through these everyday rituals, she’s nursing a powerful resentment recently, having been banned from continuing her college studies following a stint at political activism. Grounded at her home and abandoned by her husband, her daughter Dorsa becomes the target of her outrage, much like Samuel in The Babook becomes the foil to mother Amelia’s literally monstrous depression.
Dorsa’s own fears come in the form of Djinn, air-themed demons not entirely unlike The Exorcist’s Pazuzu (1973). Of course her mother chalks these fears to stress and the constant threat of air raids, but Dorsa is adamant about something wicked coming their way and when she loses her beloved doll/spirit ward she starts blaming Shideh. Mother and daughter turn on each other, and we get the feeling that the Djinn – jump-scares notwithstanding – is less of a monster and more of an embodiment, and all it’s really doing is reaping what bitterness and reproach have sown.
Under the Shadow does a fine job at depicting a perilously hostile world, underscored by Shideh’s disheartening plight of being a woman in a rigorously chauvinistic reality. At one point she makes a run for her life and into the streets only to be stopped by policemen for not grabbing a burka on her way out; the ensuing scene in which she’s detained and threatened with physical punishment is a depressing reminder that her best case scenario is to escape from one nightmare and into another.
There is one point of contention, that being the finale of the movie. It doesn’t conclude so much as stop, and we get the feeling there’s a scene or two missing. We get no closure on the issue of Shideh’s activism or her stunted career, which seems like a glaring omission considering it’s what provides her character’s drive, nor does the movie address the absence of her husband – again, something that is given much weight in the opening act and becomes something of a recurring subplot before being unceremoniously dropped altogether.
The movie quite simply stops on its way to ending properly, and for that it got a big unanimous laugh during its initial screening at the Mar del Plata Film Festival.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).