Could the late, great Abbas Kiarostami have guessed that, in the year of his death, Iran’s most prominent cinematic export would be horror movies? The development perhaps isn’t so unimaginable. This genre permits imaginative filmmakers to get by on suggestion alone, thus circumventing censorious eyes; vampires such as those we encountered in 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night can stand for long-repressed desires (ask the good folks of Hammer); and we forget that horror iconography travels easily, for every country has its own shadows within which bogeymen might take refuge.
That said, Babak Anvari’s cracking Under the Shadow outlines a decidedly region-specific set of circumstances. It opens in a mode recognisable from recent Asghar Farhadi films, describing the tricky situation faced by two progressive middle-class medics living together on the outskirts of Tehran. To the frustration of careerist hubby Iraj (Bobby Naderi), Shideh (Nargis Rashidi) has been suspended over her student radicalism. The irony is her nation needs every available hand – for we’re right in the middle of that 1980s conflict that saw Iran and neighbours Iraq tossing bombs into one another’s backyards.
With peaceful cohabitation some distance off, these characters appear plenty rattled even before things start to go bang and bump in the night. Shideh obsessively rearranges the glasses in the kitchen cabinets; young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) begins to wet the bed. When Iraj is ordered to the front line, matters get more fraught besides: there is talk of sleepwalking, someone else in the apartment, djinns. As in A Separation, our nerves wear alongside those of the characters: it reaches a point where the sight of the toaster popping makes us jumpy, and the gentlest movement of the camera leaves us rocking.
Worse is to come, but Anvari’s biggest achievement here is how well he invokes the background horror of life during wartime – a moment where, even if you’re fortunate enough to avoid seeing your loved ones wiped out before your eyes, your ears are still vulnerable to sirens, screaming, and endless speculation about the terrors headed your way. It doesn’t matter how rigorously Shideh exercises each morning to her Jane Fonda video, death is suddenly in the air, literalised in the missile that bisects one neighbour’s flat, or the ceiling crack that opens up closer to home, one among many threats hanging over her.
Clearly the recent wave of quiet-quiet-loud horrors – and the slower creep of 2014’s The Babadook – have factored into Anvari’s thinking, but Under the Shadow works as well as an evocation of a fraught moment in recent Iranian history, when mothers and daughters were left behind to patch up homes, possessions and families. More than anything, Shideh and Dorsa are plagued by uncertainty. Unable to sleep, their minds begin to wander; everyday events – such as the disappearance of Dorsa’s doll – take on disproportionate significance. Scenes hover between realism and waking nightmare.
The painting and music video that feed Dorsa’s imagination are precisely chosen, yet Anvari’s own imagemaking proves no less potent. The Xs of taped-up windows suggest a family marked for death; the ceiling crack concretises this household’s fragmenting relationships; while a suffocating chador floats over the final scenes. Ripe for multiplex dissection, Under the Shadow clearly isn’t one from the Kiarostami school. Yet wherever he’s now watching from, Kiarostami would likely recognise these most vividly described tensions, and – much like the rest of us – would almost certainly be jolted from his seat in several places.
Under the Shadow is available on DVD through Precision Pictures from Monday.