American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Total silence is rare in "Under the Shadow." There is the wind, sometimes a whisper, sometimes a roar. Radio stations blare shouted speeches and chanting crowds. Calls to prayer echo. Air-raid sirens scream. Loudspeakers in the hallways of the college campus blare anthemic music. Even benign sounds—a toaster, a phone ringing, the music in a Jane Fonda workout video—occur at a jarring decibel level. When the background noise drops out, the silence is deafening. Something terrible is happening. The chaos in the outside world infiltrates the interior. "Under the Shadow," a Farsi-language debut feature written and directed by Babak Anvari, creates a world where reality itself is suspect. In a year filled with great first features, add "Under the Shadow" to the list.
Taking place in 1988 Tehran, during the "war of the cities" phase of the nearly decade long Iran-Iraq war, "Under the Shadow" is the story of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), a mother and daughter holed up in their apartment, withstanding the missile bombardment. As the attacks increase in frequency, the city empties of people. Shideh and Dorsa remain, at first because Shideh is stubborn, and feeling bullied by her absent husband's demands (over static-crackling phone calls from one of the war fronts where he is stationed) that she go stay with his parents. Shideh refuses, taping X's on the windows, hustling Dorsa into the basement during air raids, pulling out her illegal VCR to do Jane Fonda workouts (after closing the curtains).
There are signs early on that all is not entirely well. Shideh has a history of sleepwalking. Dorsa has night terrors. When Shideh is expelled from her medical school for political activity during the Revolution, her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is sympathetic but also says, "Maybe it's for the best." There is simmering resentment in the marriage, exacerbated by the instituting of laws requiring chadors worn in the street and a hemming-in of women's mobility. Those laws have infiltrated personal relationships, highlighting fissures in the home that may have already been there.
The atmosphere in the apartment building among the residents is one of whispered rumors, suspicion of one another, belief in portents of doom. An orphan child living with the landlord informs Dorsa that the building is haunted by a djinn. The landlord's wife believes in djinn, telling 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," according to banned Iranian writer Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, whose book Shideh reads, looking for answers. Shideh tells Dorsa repeatedly there is no such thing as a djinn but slowly, over time, Shideh begins to doubt herself. Things disappear. Dorsa's beloved doll vanishes. Shideh's beloved Jane Fonda tape ends up in the garbage. Shideh's medical textbook, locked in a cabinet, somehow ends up in another apartment. When Shideh finally decides that it's time to go to Iraj's parents, Dorsa refuses to leave until her doll is found. Dorsa develops a fever. And then things get really weird.