UNDER THE SHADOW, the eerie slow-burn chiller that marks the directorial debut of Babak Anvari, indulges in a particularly dangerous dance. It’s a dance of many genres, many aspirations, and many roadblocks, and to be fair, Anvari almost gets us to a point where everything comes together to initiate a satisfying whole. In this sense, he’s already ahead of the game, even if the Iranian-born filmmaker doesn’t always seem content to be playing the field.
Set in post-revolution Tehran during the 1980’s, this macabre tale begins as former medical student Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is denied the opportunity to continue her studies as a result of being involved with Leftist activists in the past. At home, Shideh has plenty to worry about as it is – her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor, tends to openly undermine his wife’s achievements and their daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), often retreats to a fantasy world that she believes in a bit too much – while the war rages on outside.
Iraj’s medical assistance is needed in the heart of the combat zone and he must leave his family in the city for an extended period of time. Soon after his departure, a missile lands on the apartment directly above theirs, resulting in the death of one of its elderly tenants. Following the incident, Dorsa’s behavior becomes slightly erratic. She loses her favorite doll and constantly searches for it inside and outside of the apartment, believing that its disappearance is linked to a malicious spirit known as a “Djinn”, which may have possessed their home.
Shideh’s initial reaction is to chalk it up to an over-active imagination, but then terrifying visions begin to plague her fragile psyche during both night and day alike, and she finds herself, much like her child, no longer able to discern reality from fantasy. Anvari handles her struggle to reclaim individual strength and identity with grace, crafting an at times clever and never less than engaging feminist parable. In terms of social-political context, it uses its monster as an obvious metaphor for the ramifications of war, and it’s in this realm of lingering, impactful terror that UNDER THE SHADOW exceeds.
It’s also here that it tends to stumble. The film is at its brooding best when embracing the power of implication, patience, and silence all at once, but its alternating concepts of fear seem, at times, contradictory. On one hand, it makes a conscious effort to be intelligent genre fare, seldom resorting to cheap shock tactics and utilizing the widescreen compositions to their maximum, anxiety-ridden potential; but there are also far too many instances in which initially effective sequences amount to little more than underwhelming jump scares. It’s as if whenever Anvari has something beautiful he feels the need to destroy it. This unfortunately also goes for the (thankfully few) glimpses the viewer is granted of the “Djinn” itself, which – mostly due to some pretty lame CG effects – are more ridiculous than blood-curdling, save for a genuinely ominous moment involving an old man and the colossal cracks in the apartment ceiling.
This isn’t a bad film, in fact it’s mostly a pretty good one, but it clearly wants to be so much more than that and there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be. It’s well made, performed, conceived, overall well-intentioned but one can’t shake the feeling that it’s the work of a director caught up in certain contemporary genre trappings, the kind that tend to obscure a poignant message. Anvari wants to have his cake and eat it too, which doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. It’s a sign of clear ambition and, especially in his case, talent. But next time he’d be best to count his blessings and roll with them rather than drive himself into such a dark, discouraged corner as this.