Strip away all the spooky otherworldly elements in "Under the Shadow," and the film would still hold up as nothing less than a stingingly enthralling depiction of the religious and cultural oppression in 1988 Tehran during the final days of the Iran-Iraq War. When a horror film uses said horrors as shading to an otherwise stirring, character-oriented drama, it is a sure sign the makers have more on their minds than simply creating shivers. So it goes with the feature directorial debut of Iranian-born, London-based Babak Anvari, who so adeptly plants his audience in the thick of his story's harrowing war-torn climate it comes as a greater jolt when it takes a turn for the supernatural.
Five years ago, aspiring doctor Shideh (Narges Rashidi) left university for frowned-upon political pursuits during Iran's Cultural Revolution. Now married and with young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), Shideh hopes to return to her studies and earn the degree she began. Her past, however, makes it impossible in her country's eyes. In no uncertain terms, the dean of the school tells her she will never be welcomed back. "I suggest a new goal in life," he says, his words biting her with suffocating finality. When her husband, successful doctor Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is drafted to give medical assistance in the thick of the fighting zone, Shideh finds herself caring for Dorsa on her own, daily air raids and threats of missile attacks leaving them vulnerable in their apartment building.
So far, "Under the Shadow" may sound like a straight sociopolitical slice-of-life, but waiting in the wings is the suggestion that a malevolent Djinn is in their midst after Dorsa loses her doll, comes down with a prolonged fever, and starts claiming to see people in her room. Shideh tries to reassure her the Djinn is pure fairytale, but must reconsider when she is subsequently accosted by nightmarish visions of her own and learns from a neighbor Djinns are unstoppable, wind-riding wraiths who will take the lives of anyone it claims a personal object from. As the city is progressively overtaken by darkness and the rest of the occupants of the building begin to flee, Shideh realizes she is running out of time to save her daughter.
Foreboding tension of a very real variety is evident from the opening moments of "Under the Shadow," and the film's stark intensity only escalates as Shideh and Dorsa are thrust into two separate battles they do not fully comprehend. Narges Rashidi (2005's "Aeon Flux
") is extraordinary as Shideh, longing for a life free of old-world persecution and struggling to save her daughter in the process, while Avin Manshadi is a real find as young Dorsa. If the familiar climactic payoff in "Under the Shadow" does not match its utterly riveting long build-up, the final shot of where an undetonated missile once crashed through the roof of the apartment building lingers long after the closing credits. For Shideh and Dorsa, there are more pressing matters to fear than the wrath of an ancient spirit.