A contemporary Jack the Ripper spins a dastardly web in Holy Spider. This true crime film from Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi (Border) is a gripping study of systemic misogyny. A serial killer known as “the Spider” preys upon sex workers in Mashhad, Iran’s holy city. The year is 2001 and 9/11 has the world shaken to the core. In Mashhad, however, the Spider’s web ensnares the city in fear. More chilling than the Spider’s brutal crimes, however, are the old ways that enable them.
The killer shows no sign of letting up and, despite over a dozen murders, the police are getting nowhere. Tehran-based journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) arrives in search of a story and, more so, justice. Abbasi makes clear that this intrepid reporter won’t have an easy go covering the plight of sex workers in Mashhad. Upon arriving at the hotel where she has a reservation, the clerk refuses to check her in. She, an unaccompanied woman, risks bringing the establishment into disrepute. Rahimi holds her ground and refuses to cover her hair at the hotelier’s request. She’s respectful, but won’t be swayed when patriarchy rears its ugly head.
As Rahimi looks into the cases, she learns that said head has been poking to the Spider’s web. The local journalist covering the case, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), has information that isn’t public. The Spider, he explains, calls him after each kill with tips on where to find the body and ramblings about his self-directed holy war. This news chills Rahimi. The police should have oodles of clues to snare the spider, yet the man just keeps killing in his quest to rid the streets of women he deems immoral.
Along Came a Spider
Holy Spider doesn’t spin a conventional whodunit. Instead, Abbasi introduces audiences to the Spider from the outset. He’s a seemingly ordinary and often jovial, if mercurial, husband and father. Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) is a war veteran seemingly emasculated by the fact that he has no visible scars from his time in service. His complex psychology reveals deeper scars, though. He believes the impulse to “clean up the streets” of Mashhad is a higher calling. Saeed believes his quest is righteous; he feels his quest is just and good.
The choice to reveal the killer from the outset, however, is a brilliant stroke of narrative framing. Holy Spider emphasizes the victims and the deeply rooted misogyny that preys upon women. Abbasi affords considerable screentime to the women who become the Spider’s prey. They are daughters, they are sisters, and they are mothers. The film observes as they work the streets and assume considerable risk to earn a living. Abbasi also takes audiences inside the victims’ homes, via Rahimi in her search for answers. The film observes how these women are discarded and denied even by the very people who brought them into this world.
These moments with the victims make the Spider’s kills doubly jarring. Holy Spider features moments of brutal, often unwatchable violence as Saeed strangles each woman to death. In making audiences witness such violence, though, the film underscores the callousness of the institutional violence that overlooks his crimes. As one witness pointedly tells Rahimi the police have no motive to catch the Spider if he’s easing their work.
Worthy Cannes Best Actress Winner
The film is not an easy watch as Rahimi tries to catch the Spider in his own game. The ripped-from-the-headlines story nevertheless offers a starkly necessary social commentary when, twenty years after the murders in Mashhad, violence against women and their bodies is as much of an international affair as ever. Holy Spider finds its power in the shadows with these moments in which it lets audiences look into the eyes of the Spider’s prey. Central to the film’s power are the two excellent performances that fuel it. Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance, is resolutely strong. She’s the film’s moral centre and its soapbox, yet the film handles its moral fable as Ebrahimi holds her ground. As the Spider, Bajestini is positively chilling. Wide-eyed and determined, he conjures a man who is truly controlled by his own righteousness.
More troubling than any image of the Spider, though, are the shots of his children in the final scenes. His son extols the sins of the father to Rahimi as she interviews him and he re-enacts Saeed’s crimes. Saeed’s younger daughter, meanwhile, plays the victims as her brother shows how their dad did the deed. The young girl happily plays dead as her brother steps on her neck and rolls her up in a carpet. She plays along because life has taught her to accept her fate.