TIFF 2022: Ali Abbasi’s ‘Holy Spider’

Under the oppressive, patriarchal eye of Iran’s Morality Police, a serial killer stalks women in the sex trade, brutality strangling them in what he believes to be a holy fatwa against immorality. But what does it mean when this campaign of violence is tacitly endorsed by the government, the police, the citizenry, and the man’s own family? Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is about the horrors that unfold, and most infuriatingly are allowed to unfold under a veil of indifference. It exposes the ghastly results of the kind of society that upholds a psychopath on a twisted mission to “cleanse the city of corruption” as a folk hero. 

Holy Spider focuses on a strong-willed main character, Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) who is in the holy city of Mashhad to investigate a series of murders of sex workers. Stonewalled at every turn by uncooperative officials in the highest levels of government, and openly corrupt police that seek to exploit her, she pushes back against the oppressive barriers to try and suss out the truth. The character of Rahimi is mostly fictionalized, though loosely-based on a real woman.  She doesn’t take shit, not from hotel employees who balk at renting a room to an unmarried woman, not from her ‘nice guy’ partner who jovially brings up her traumatic past, and not from an openly-corrupt cop who looks to trade information for sexual favours. And when Rahimi starts to get closer to uncovering the truth about the Spider Killer, she takes matters into her own capable hands.

The casting of Ebrahimi feels chillingly apt, and her performance feels all too real. Her character Rahimi’s career is unjustly derailed due to an alleged affair with the editor of her newspaper, for which she is fired and forced to go freelance. Ebrahimi’s own career as a soap actress in Iran was halted when a leaked sex tape forced her to escape the country, as a reminder that life disturbingly imitates art sometimes. There is vindication for both, though, as the actor earned the Best Actress honour at Cannes this year for her electric performance. 

Abbasi’s portrayal also follows the killer himself, Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), allowing for no whodunnit deviations. We know who the Spider Killer is from the beginning. The very picture of toxic mediocrity, Hanaei is a devout Muslim and a builder who dreams of his former glory in the military and in the Iran-Iraq war. Like the guy you know who can’t stop talking about his high school football achievements, even decades removed from them and with no other notable accomplishments to speak of, Hanaei laments to his well-connected father-in-law that he wants – no, deserves – a bigger role and more notoriety in society. This is despite having a family – a much-younger wife, an admiring son, and young daughter – and friends that are fiercely devoted to him and what would outwardly appear to be an exceedingly good life. 

So when Hanaei stalks the streets of Mashhad on his motorcycle, picking up women and brutally strangling them, it becomes, somehow, even less explainable and more senseless. His “holy” crusade is already notorious upon Rahimi’s arrival in the city, partly due to Hanaei making certain that the Spider Killer’s reputation as a lethal enforcer of Mashad’s oppressive, misogynistic morality system is intact. He makes anonymous calls to a local crime reporter, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) with rage-filled rants that reveal the exact location of each of the dumped bodies of his victims. One wonders, though not for long, how the local law enforcement has managed to avoid catching someone who leaves such obvious clues until it becomes clear to Rahimi and Sharifi that they’re simply not interested in solving this case. In this sense, Holy Spider, according to Abbasi, is not “a serial killer movie” but rather “a movie about a serial killer society. It is about the deep-rooted misogyny within Iranian society, which is not specifically religious or political but cultural.”

The production of Holy Spider is polished, but feels exactly as rough as its subject matter. Lots of tight, uncomfortable shots of Hanaei’s gruesome killings and struggles with his victims, and the pained frustration that Rahimi experiences in her pursuits force the audience into the middle of the story, even when you might desperately want a respite. A stunning drone shot of the Mashhad cityscape with the mosque in the centre and the streets radiating out of it deftly portrays the web in which Hanaei’s Spider does his monstrous work. A chilling synth score rumbles its low tones throughout, agitating and building tension. All of it is in service of the outstanding performances of Ebrahimi, Bajestani, and a standout supporting cast. It’s disturbing and as hard to watch as the outstanding and under-seen Snowtown Murders (2011) from Justin Kurzel, but equally as essential.

I watch a lot of horror and, while Holy Spider isn’t explicitly presented as one despite its violent content, the idea that it’s based on true events chills me to my very core. I wish, as I look at the numerous physical and institutional assaults on women that we’ve seen most recently and throughout, well, history, that it was more surprising or hard to believe. And before we write off the true events of Holy Spider as the machinations of a society that’s less progressive than our own, I would point to the actions and the coverage of monsters like Kyle Rittenhouse, Robert Pickton, and Bruce McArthur whose horrific actions were not only allowed to happen by those charged with protecting us, but were and are often lionized by the most extreme fringes of Western society simply because their victims were marginalized – activists, sex workers, and queer individuals. The final scene of Holy Spider has stuck with me for days, because it implies that the deranged actions of the Spider can, will, and do happen anytime and anywhere that marginalization of any kind is allowed to flourish and fester. What horror, real or fictional, comes close to that?

Wild Bunch presents Holy Spider at the Toronto International Film Festival. More information here.

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