In Under the Shadow (2016), Shideh (Narges Rashidi) plops a VHS tape in and exercises in front of the television, and jerks from side to side to the sounds of Jane Fonda’s affirmations against dancy ‘80s music. Not too long after, a familiar piercing groan is heard. Air-raid sirens. Shideh snatches up her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), and the two retreat to the basement of their Tehran apartment building, where a small group of neighbors huddle together in the dark. When it’s over, they move back upstairs, acting as if nothing happened. This is the status quo.
Screened at the Independent Film Festival Boston 2016, the world of Babak Anvari’s debut feature is Iran in the ‘80s, after the Islamic Revolution and during the lengthy Iran-Iraq war. The shadow in the title could mean many things: the looming specter of war and death, the long shadow of post-revolution Islamic conservatism. The latter, in fact, is most important to our heroine, Shideh, a liberal housewife whose participation in leftist groups during university led to her expulsion and torpedoed her chance to return and pursue medical studies. When we meet her, she is told by a school official that “he wanted her to hear this: she will never be admitted back.”