INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OF INDIA 2022 REVIEW! Ali Abbasi’s third feature, Holy Spider, comes from a true-crime occurrence of serial murders in Iran in 2002. Saeed Hanaei, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, took upon himself what he called a ‘jihad’ of cleansing Iran of filth. Targeting sex workers in the streets of Mashhad, Hanaei murdered sixteen women and dumped their bodies. It all turned into one of the most heinous crime incidents in the country that gave him a nickname – Spider Killer.
Holy Spider, however, extends the narrative of a crime-thriller and police procedural drama. It does begin like one when we see a figure, visible only as a silhouette, picking up a prostitute off the streets and then taking her up to an apartment. It’s implied that he has brought her to his neighborhood as he constantly asks her to be quiet. He kills her, instead in a hush, and then dumps her body. But, not long after, Saeed Azmi (Mehdi Bajestani) is revealed to be the one drifting Mashhad at night, picking up his victims. A real family man, Saeed lives a respectful life in the suburbs with his wife, a son, and two kids, all unknown to his criminal activities. That’s one sign that Holy Spider won’t be just about catching and unmasking the culprit.
Bajestani looks the part and quite impeccably executes it. While working his day job and handling family affairs, he is calm, composed, well-loved, and respected in the family. But then, portraying his other, true self, his anger, obsession, and wicked sense of morality bring the vileness of his character on-screen. His body language induces fright, while his thoughts and actions would make you immediately hate him.
“A journalist battles to unravel the truth behind a long going serial killings case left unsolved and neglected under oppressive socio-political biases.”
But it’s Zar Amir Ebrahimi who uplifts Holy Spider from an eccentric thriller to an investigative study of patriarchal ideologies and the symbolic struggle against them. Ebrahimi plays Rahimi, a journalist who travels to Mashhad to unravel the truth behind these ‘spider’ killings. In her first experience in the city, Rahimi is denied entry into the hotel she has pre-booked. Her being unmarried calls for policing of her character and her hijab, which has left strands of her hair visible. This is the first of many layers of film’s study into morality policing, gender bias, and stereotyping against women in Iran.
Ebrahimi’s character is a fictional one. She has nothing to do with the actual events of the serial killings Saeed orchestrated. But, perhaps, Abbasi’s true motives behind recreating a two-decade-old case better mirror with a strong female protagonist, who makes up for a great contrast against the actual situation of women’s rights and liberties in Iran. Abbasi’s Holy Spider is perhaps coming forth at the right time, with Iran erupting in protests, marches, and globally communicated activism that supports equality for the suppressed gender. Rahimi, an independent, strong-minded lady, is a striking bullet to the misogyny embedded in Iran’s well-established patriarchal ideals.
At one point, she also battles sexism and unwanted advances from a police officer, going against the odds to bring all those murdered women justice. A figure of authority treating Rahimi with such behavior further digs into the severity of the issue in discussion.