Be of Sin the double cure
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
– Rev. Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1775)
When I was in college, I started reading my dad’s ancient and deteriorating copy of Roland Bainton’s seminal Martin Luther biography, Here I Stand. It was a desperately self-serious move. I confidently walked the streets of downtown Atlanta with it tucked prominently under my arm. I was a burgeoning intellectual, after all, and I wanted people to know it. I wanted my collegiate peers to see that I took theology & history seriously. And I knew this was just the book to telegraph the kind of scholar that they would be encountering.
So imagine the horrifying chill that shot down my spine when I discovered in Bainton’s surprisingly folksy prose that my ecclesiastical hero, the giant who felled the medieval Church, believed in mountain trolls and woodland sprites well into his Reformational years. How could this be possible? Luther was a titanic intellect that almost single-handedly forged The Modern World—an era free from the shackles of such superstition. How could this theological genius be so susceptible to the work of ghouls & devils?
This is the same cold shock that Babak Anvari unleashes on his audience in his terrific film, Under the Shadow (2016). And like the film’s audience, Anvari’s characters are a decidedly modern people with decidedly ancient problems. The film is set against the backdrop of 1988 Tehran, a city under explosive military siege & rapid cultural change. The opening text tells us that the Iran-Iraq War was the longest conventional war of the already bloody 20th century. The film reminds us that, “Lives were plunged into darkness where fear and anxiety thrived,” before cutting to grainy images of combat overlaid with ancient renderings of Arabic and Zoroastrian demons. Worlds clash and people crumble. Maybe Martin Luther was onto something…
The Accusing Voice of Guilt
Immediately, we’re keyed into the filmmaker’s intent: offering us a jarring psychosocial account of a region reeling from ten awful years of violent idealogical conflict. And specifically, he shows the toll that it takes on the most vulnerable of society—in this case: women. The film opens with a quiet but disconcerting juxtaposition of elements. A contemporary university is bustling with women in full chadors and khimars, while a discordant military march crackles over the PA system. The unspeakable dread of wartime is swelling.
In the administrator’s office sits Shideh (Narges Rashidi), a former medical student, now housewife and mother, pleading for reentrance into the university, “I don’t want my future destroyed because of making one mistake.”
“So you admit it,” fires back the male administrator. Above his head hangs the ominous glare of Ayatollah Khomeini, a not-so-subtle reminder of the shift towards Islamic fundamentalism since 1979’s Iranian revolution. Things are different now in Tehran.
“Admit what?” she replies. The administrator scoffs, “What you’ve done.”
We discover that Shideh was embroiled in left-leaning political activism during the Iranian revolution. She just wanted change, she says, and she was so young. But her challenger is unmoved, and to underline this, the camera turns to reveal a window in between them. An explosion erupts in the distance. The message is clear: an idealogical war rages not only between the two countries, but worse—between two countrymen. Shideh is modern, but this regime isn’t. And there is no common ground between them. Her accuser dismisses her, “Every mistake has consequences.”
Shideh is emblematic of the cultural losses sustained by Iran’s people. This war hasn’t just cost the people their lives, but also their way of life. Shideh’s talent for the medical field and her desire to serve the people are pushed aside. She backed the wrong pony, so to speak. And now she tries to play the game by wearing the traditional attire and humbly begging for the consideration of a disapproving faculty, but to no avail.
As Shideh returns home defeated, we see some of the same tensions in her personal life. She smooths her hands over a note in a medical textbook from her late mother, an encouraging word to become a doctor in a male-dominated field. But Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor himself, is only somewhat sympathetic to her plight. Maybe, he suggests, this just isn’t meant to be for her. She clutches the gift close to her heart, staring blankly at a faded photo of her mother before locking the book away, a hidden totem from an uncaring world. As she sits with Iraj on the edge of their bed, processing her grief, we hear a distant call in the city to evening prayer. “Maybe things will get better after the war,” he suggests. But she knows the truth. “This war seems to be never-ending.”
Just then, the lights go out. A siren wails. The two scoop up their young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), and run to the basement with other families in their building, praying for deliverance from an inevitable invasion.
Guilt begins to grip Shideh’s heart. Her past actions haunt the periphery of her conscience. Was her former youthful idealism going to end up costing her family blood and tears? Was she wrong to resist growing religious extremism? Would she have been a good doctor? Was she a good wife and mother?
As she silently contemplates these endless questions, a nameless and invisible evil begins its uncanny invasion. For the filmmaker, the djinn—demons of the ancient Arabic world—serve as the perfect metaphor for a backwards and haunted traditionalism that amplify the real world terror of physical war and emotional loss. And like any good work of magical realism, the preternatural elements are both completely figurative and doggedly literal.
The Desperate Grab for Power
In the next scene, we see another reoccurring image rife with foreshadowing. It’s white tape made into an ‘X’ on the windows of Shideh’s home. It’s a futile attempt to keep the violent and invasive world, whether in the form of an invading military or a primordial ghoul, from breaking into the refuge of their home. But, of course, these forces can’t be kept out forever.
Eventually, Iraj is summoned to the front lines as a medical officer. She responds by retreating to her progressive oasis, working out to a Jane Fonda aerobics tape in one of the film’s only light moments. But this encroaching evil won’t be ignored. Her family is fragmenting. And we wonder if the cracks in the widows will begin to grow.
Anvari does a great job of showing us the immense burden that war takes on women like Shideh. Before he departs, Iraj suggests that she take Dorsa to his parents’ home up north. He warns that Iraqi missile strikes are almost certain. But she refuses, “What? Am I not capable of looking after my own child now?” A heated argument breaks out between them. Why is it that he gets to be a doctor, but she can’t? Again, Shideh’s fear and guilt spill over. Can she take care of her child? Could she ever really be a doctor?
After Iraj leaves, Dorsa immediately becomes skittish. On their first morning alone, she warily asks her mother about djinn. A neighbor boy, Mehdi (Karam Rashayda), who lost his parents to the war told her that they are coming for them. It’s a startling suggestion. So Shideh goes to talk to Medhi’s aunt, Mrs. Ebrahimi (Aram Ghasemy), only to discover that he is mute—he couldn’t have told Dorsa those stories. When Shideh mentions the djinn, Mrs. Ebrahimi rattles off prayers to God for protection. She knows her Q’ran. Djinn are real. And as Dorsa reminded her mother at the breakfast table, they are evil and want to hurt us.
As time passes, more and more people leave the building. Shideh’s & Dorsa’s lives become more desolate of family and community. But everything truly changes when a missile hits their apartment. Dorsa and Shideh get separated when an explosion rocks the building. Dorsa was knocked unconscious but is okay. As Shideh revives her, she begins crying out in terror. She has seen the djinn. They are real. And they are here.
Suddenly a neighbor bursts onto the scene and begs Shideh to come upstairs to help her father. “But I’m not a doctor!” She goes anyway. She and the neighbors come into the room to encounter a surreal sight: a massive, unexploded missile lodged in the roof. An elderly man lays incapacitated in the corner of the room. Shideh lays him down on the floor and desperately performs CPR with no response. Framed in the shot is the missile, not only penetrating the room, but also (symbolically) the man’s chest. The horror of war has finally made it to Tehran, and along with it, the secret evil of the djinn.
Guilt has gripped Shideh’s heart with defiant resolve. “If only I were a doctor, I could have saved his life.” After cleaning up in the aftermath, she discovers the same picture of her mother, now riddled with cracks, on the floor. She picks it up, but then sets it face down, overcome with grief and guilt. Has she let everyone in her life down?
The grief that everyone feels in the film, the desperation to find restoration, is underscored by the djinn mysteriously stealing totems like Dorsa’s doll, Kimisa. Shideh’s neighbor, Mrs. Ebrahimi suggests that when djinn take a personal item, there is no escaping the power of their possession. This drives Dorsa to the brink of madness. And the djinn return looking for something that means much to Shideh. After several failed attempts, eventually the djinn finds the right totem: her textbook. This war and this regime have stripped away all human dignity from these people. Nothing of them remains untouched.
Later, the skeptical Shideh borrows a book from another neighbor, a similarly westernized woman: The People of the Air by the mystic, Shidea. “The winds refer to mysterious, ethereal, and magical forces which can be anywhere,” the book reads, “Where there is fear and anxiety, the wind blows.”
Shideh wakes up one night after all of her neighbors have fled to the north. Everyone is gone, but she sees the figure of a man standing over her bed. She screams and chases him through her home, turning the corner to see him ascending through the cracked ceiling where the missile had done its previous damage. Out of sheer panic she scoops up Dorsa, who is talking to an unseen stranger in the room, and runs out on the streets. Soldiers pick her up and take her into custody. But they care nothing for her fear.
Eventually she is released after being given a hijab to wear, and an angry male authority figure lectures her: “This behavior is absolutely intolerable. A woman should be scared of exposing herself more than anything else. So, be ashamed! These are not the old times. We have values now. Our men are becoming martyrs now to protect these values!” The camera pushes in on Shideh’s dead-eyed stare as his lecture fades into indistinct shouts.
What would this man know about being scared? She is a woman alone with her daughter in wartime, and not one man from this new regime has has shown her the slightest modicum of compassion! The juxtaposition is damning: here, she has to listen to an apathetic stranger rattle off a supposedly better set of values, all the while leaving her and her child to fend for themselves. Even if the djinn aren’t after her, the new fundamentalist regime may as well be.
When they return home, she puts tape over the cracked ceiling, desperately trying to keep fear and guilt and war and demons out. But it’s too late. We finally see the spectre: a tall and ghostly figure in a grey and shapeless burqa: an undead embodiment of pitiless religiosity. It flies into the apartment with an evil shriek and slams the door in Shideh’s face. She is locked out of her home while Dorsa is trapped inside with it. She is helpless. But finally, she forces her way back inside and searches the apartment in vain. Dorsa says she sees this lady often. “She’s nice. She plays with me. She says you can’t take care of me any more, but she can.” Will Shideh even lose her child to this terrible new way of life?
The djinn are Shideh’s worst fears personified: her mother is gone, her husband is gone, her career is gone, her neighbors are gone, her textbook is gone, and now she faces the threat of her daughter being taken away too. Just then, her phone rings. The voice is her husband’s, but the words are the djinn’s. The guilting voice mocks, “You can’t protect Dorsa! You’re useless! You’re nothing but a disappointment! Even your daughter hates you!”
Eventually, Shideh has a stand off with her accusing phantom. The figure appears behind Dorsa, before its burqa explodes into a mass of fabric swallowing both Dorsa and Shideh alive. Shideh, in pure desperation, fights her way out of the smothering oppression of these new, legalistic values. They finally escape, but not for long.
The film tragically ends as Shideh and Dorsa make their fruitless getaway. They’ve left behind part of Dorsa’s doll and the whole of Shideh’s textbook. And Mrs. Ebrahimi’s words come back to haunt us: if the djinn have your prized possession, then they have you too. As Shideh frantically drives away from their home, we realize that they are doomed. Shideh’s guilt will always follow her. If she survives the war, she won’t survive the djinn.
The film’s conclusion is shocking. So often in modern horror, mothers and children are spared from final damnation. Eventually, their suffering is alleviated and their redemption is sure. But not so with Under the Shadow. Because the sad reality of our world is that sometimes the vulnerable and oppressed don’t find deliverance. War is Hell, and it drags suffering women and frightened children down into its abyss. What hope do those who suffer unjustly have of redemption and new life?
At the beginning of the post, I quoted Augustus Toplady’s enduring hymn, “Rock of Ages.” According to Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge, its imagery of Sin as both the internal, self-conscious voice of Guilt and the external, oppressive lash of Power is a helpful way of understanding the brokenness of our world. Shideh experiences both in this film: personal guilt over her own inadequacy and the otherworldly power of war and demons. Both aspects are all too real. And both most be overcome.
What a happy coincidence it is that the film’s primary image is a shadowy cross cast over the face of its characters. The way it’s deployed is to suggest these characters are being x-ed out of existence, totally forgotten under the looming shadow of an uncaring world. But as Christians, we too fall under the shadow of a cross of suffering. The difference, of course, is that on this cross, God himself becomes a sufferer with us. He takes the Death we experience in war and guilt and transforms it into Resurrection. And the Good News of this Suffering God is given to all those who suffer. It’s the only Hope of our war-wearied world languishing under its own guilt. But all shadows pass. And Light envelops the sufferer in the end.
- Interview – The Guardian: Terror in Tehran: Under the Shadow and The Politics of Horror
- Interview – Den of Geek: Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow, & Horror