When the bodies of strangled prostitutes begin appearing on the outskirts of the holy city of Mashhad, a female journalist, Rahimi (Cannes Best Actress winner Zar Amir Ebrahimi), travels from Tehran to investigate the serial killings. She’ll encounter a colleague, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), who has heard ugly rumors about her, a hotel unwilling to rent a room to a single woman and a police force doing nothing to catch the man known as the “Holy Spider.”
Laura's Review: B+
Writer/director Ali Abbasi veers from the dark fairy tale fantasy of "Border" to a riveting docudrama based on the real 2000-2001 Saeed Hanaei serial killings. While the films seem like they’re worlds apart, both address oppression, in the former case, of outsiders (trolls), in the latter, women, especially the most downtrodden. Abbasi uses his fictional journalist to showcase the everyday indignities Iranian women are currently protesting, threats from ‘morality police’ (that have now evolved into outright murder), while sticking close to the facts with Saeed (here renamed Saeed Azimi), who believed he was doing the work of Allah by ridding the streets of ‘corrupt women.’ Even worse than the fact that he killed sixteen within one year, strangling them with their own hijabs, was the support he received after his arrest from Islamic conservatives and their media.
The film opens from the point of view of Saeed’s first victim, a woman we see covering the bruises on her body before leaving her young daughter to go out in search of drugs and to walk the streets. When a man (Mehdi Bajestani) on a motorbike approaches, she agrees to go with him, but she finds his request that she don a black chador in a dark alley strange and intuiting something wrong, changes his mind as he unlocks his door. He pounces before she can make her way down the stairs and we witness him throttling the life out of her as her eyes go blank. Wrapping her body in the black cloth, he trundles her onto his bike and drives outside the city.
Rahimi arrives and begins interviewing local officials with Sharifi in tow. A cleric has all the right words about prostitution being a social problem of the ‘poor and desperate’ yet doesn’t appear sincere while police captain Rostami (Sina Parvaneh) is evasive and defiantly defensive, suggesting that the journalist has no right to question him. Rahimi pushes her luck by offering him a cigarette when he finds his pack is empty. He seems impressed that they are Marlboro Red, but delivers the comment with a sinister implication that she is trying to belittle him.
This underlying sense of male inadequacy is also expressed when we view Saeed at home with his wife, Fatima (Forouzan Jamshidnejad), and three children. He feels undervalued as an Iran-Iraq war veteran and later, when his father-in-law Haji (Firouz Ageli) questions his mood (‘Is there a woman?’), once Saeed simmers down he expresses dissatisfaction with his construction job, a profession he feels is too lowly for a man who’s given so much to his country. When Saeed’s son Ali (Mesbah Taleb) inadvertently hits him with a ball during a family outing, the man flies into a fit of rage, alarming Fatima. He’ll deliver his family to his in-laws that afternoon, leaving their own apartment empty for another murder.
Director of Photography Nadim Carlsen ("Border") contrasts the ‘holy light’ of Mashhad evenings with the squalid environs of the women who walk its streets. Rahimi’s hotel room, where Rostami will show up to sexually intimidate her, is unwelcoming, as is the café where she encounters future victim Soghra. We witness prostitutes’ points of view from the back of Saeed’s bike and several murders in close-ups that, while gruesome, also emphasize the humanity of Saeed’s victims.
Abbasi uses his journalist as ‘bait’ to lure the killer who then exposes him, close to what actually happened, but the reality of Saeed’s capture sees his wife defending his actions while his father-in-law assures him of sanctioned escape. It doesn’t happen, much to Saeed’s surprise. But the film’s most horrifying moment is its last scene, a copy of a real life interview in which Ali details just how his father killed his victims (little sis is used for the demonstration), his obvious pride and smile reflecting the future. “Holy Spider” is a condemnation of the misogyny inherent in a repressive, religious patriarchal society.
Robin's Review: B+
Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), a female journalist, is on an investigation in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad. A serial killer is on the loose murdering sex workers and the victim list is growing. As she digs into the crimes and closes in on the killer, things get difficult when she is hindered by officials and the murderer becomes a local hero in “Holy Spider.”
Director Ali Abbasi co-wrote the adaptation (with Afshin Kamran Bahrami) of the horrific true story of a yearlong murder rampage by Saeed Hanaie (Mehdi Bajestani), a construction worker who saw himself as an avenger against the “filth” – the female sex workers struggling to even exist - of his city. Over the decades, there have been, unfortunately, too many men who saw women as an enemy to be brutally murdered, so Hanaie’s “mission” is not new. What made the heinous acts even more disgusting is that some conservative Muslim leaders actually praised the crimes and those around him thought he should continue the slaughter.
While the literary device of the journalist investigating the crimes is a fictional addition, it is a solid way to explain the obstacles a female reporter would have in getting answers from a misogynistic male system that views women as second class citizens. The danger Rahami faces in just trying to get answers is often harrowing.
Effectively telling the story of an “avenging angel,” Ali Abbasi ends this thought-provoking tome with an epilogue that includes an interview with the killer’s son. It is chilling in its final statement.
Personal editorial note: For many years now I have said that men have had over four millennia to get the job done right and have failed, miserably, every step of the way. I have also said that women need to step up and take over running the world. I can guarantee that a firm femme hand in running things would be a whole lot better than what we have. I mean, look around and stories like “Holy Spider” would never happen.
“Holy Spider” is Denmark’s submission for the International Oscar. It will be released by Utopia in select theaters on 10/28/22. It begins streaming on 11/14/22.