The residents of the apartment building that serves as the setting for Under the Shadow have reason to live in fear even before the monster arrives. Living in Tehran toward the desperate end of the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq launched a series of missile attacks on the Iranian capital, they live in a shaken city in a country where the utopian promise of the Iranian Revolution had started to fade. For some it was never much of a promise anyway. As the film opens, Shideh (Narges Rashidi, excellent in a role that places a lot of weight on her shoulders) meets with a university official who, while sitting under a portrait of the Shah, explains, again, why her involvement in a leftist group years ago prohibits her from finishing her medical degree. Advising her to give up, he sends her on her way and back to the upper-floor apartment she shares with her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), a girl who’s known only life during wartime. She’ll soon learn there are other reasons to be afraid.
Under the Shadow begins as a sharp, understated study of life in the Shah’s Iran. With her dream of becoming a doctor thwarted again, Shideh retreats to her home. It’s a place overflowing with books and one where a contraband VCR and a bootleg copy of Jane Fonda’s Workout enjoy a central spot — at least as long as no outsiders are around. It’s also as much a place of confinement as comfort. Within the building, Shideh can uncover her head and let down her guard. On the street, she has to behave in ways that go against her independent instincts. When Iraj suggests it might be for the best that she didn’t get readmitted to school, he finds himself on the receiving end of some pent-up resentment. When she learns he’ll soon be leaving her alone with Dorsa to work in a medical facility on the frontline, as the government requires, that resentment hardens into anger.