Director: Ali Abbasi
Stars: Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad
Upon her arrival in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, investigative journalist Rahimi (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi) has a casually insulting encounter with the entrenched misogyny and moralistic sentiment that is key to the reason behind her visit. Checking into her hotel, she is initially denied access to her room on the basis that she is an unmarried woman travelling alone and, therefore, liable to expose the establishment to disrepute. It is only when she presents evidence of her job that the discrepancy with her booking is miraculously resolved. It is a relatively minor scene in the grand scheme of Holy Spider, but it establishes much of the broader communal spirit against which this true-crime dramatisation unfolds.
It is 2001. News of 9/11 plays incidentally in the background on television, and Mashhad’s sex workers – already a marginalised portion of the city’s diverse strata – are being hunted by a serial murderer dubbed the ‘Spider Killer’. Indeed, Ali Abbasi’s film opens with said killer claiming another victim. Though the cold-open shrouds his face, he is then presented to us in striking daylight. Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) is a builder and a family man. His ordinariness clashes with many of our learned expectations from the serial killer genre. Only once do we see his internalised anger and frustration unleashed in full view of his wife and children. The rest of the time he masks his crimes in banal anonymity.
Rahimi has come to Mashhad to seek answers to his identity and to stop the escalating body count. For two acts Holy Spider adheres to a genre template. Two different hunters prowling the same terrain but at cross purposes. Rahimi quickly becomes convinced that the police’s failure to apprehend the Spider Killer is indicative of a political conspiracy to keep him at large; the grim notion that he’s doing their work for him. Institutionalised misogyny literally comes knocking at her door one night.
Abbasi – an Iranian-Danish filmmaker and no stranger to genre (having presented us the likes of Border and Shelley already) – leans hard on the gratuity of Saeed’s misdeeds, holding takes of strangulations for extended periods of time, leering at dumped corpses and applying the same gaudy visual language to Rahimi’s own close encounter in her hotel room. These elements are distasteful, deliberately so. It is important for Abbasi that our feelings of revulsion still linger as the film enters its thornier third act, where Holy Spider transforms into a meditative procedural, assessing the wider cultural impact of Saeed’s crimes. He doesn’t want us to forget the rottenness, the violence that got us here. Ultimately apprehended, Saeed is elated to find public opinion recapitulating him as a hero. A vigilante for the morality police.
The tonal turn here from dark, exploitative thriller to clinical courtroom drama shears Holy Spider into two unequal halves, but the sum total is a pessimistic indictment of Iranian society that – two decades after these events – feels dismally contemporary. So much of what unfolds here sticks in the craw, but not just because our western eyes see the outrage in the events itemised. Abbasi’s approach teeters on a knife edge. One sequence with Saeed finds him almost comically indecisive over which murder weapon to use on his latest unsuspecting victim while she sits passively in an adjoining room to the right of frame. Likewise, a late-film act of misdirection seems more for our benefit than the reality within the movie. Such choices are bold and, in their boldness, open to interpretation as to their success. Whichever side you land, it’s hard not to see them as overtures to the viewer to choose a reaction.
Still, Abbasi likes to hammer home his points even when he’s already made them. By midway through the picture it’s clear that Holy Spider wishes to acknowledge how misogynistic behaviours are taught. The presence of children in key scenes is telling enough. We already understand the implications of passing along prejudices, even inadvertently. Yet Abbasi is far from done, and the final third pushes this thesis to the fore, ending on a piece of video footage that might’ve staggered more had it’s themes not been covered already in comparatively nuanced form. It’s a chilling exit back to our daily lives and ought to read as one of the more shocking and noteworthy sequences of the year. Instead it feels strangely redundant; indicative of an inclination to second guess the audience’s understanding.