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‘Holy Spider’ Review: A Taut, True-Crime Procedural Tangled in the Wicked Web of Iranian Patriarchy

Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi revisits the 2001 case of a faith-driven murderer in a well-observed if unexpectedly linear thriller.

holy spider
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

It is hard to watch the brutalization of women on screen, especially when you know it is a re-creation of an actual crime. But it is harder still — rightly, valuably so — if you’ve been made to notice the way this woman’s lipstick is smeared over her cracked lips, if you’ve seen the old bruises that mottle that woman’s body beneath her chador, or watched her carefully stash her flats in a crinkled plastic bag as she switches into heels in a dingy bathroom. Saeed Hanaei, the real-life serial killer reimagined in Ali Abbasi’s tense and convincing procedural, believed that God was behind his grand mission to rid his city of prostitutes. But in “Holy Spider,” the devil is in those devastating details.

Hanaei, here portrayed with brave understatement by affable Iranian actor Mehdi Bajestani, was a builder, a family man, a resident of Iran’s second-largest city Mashhad (a name that means “the place of martyrs”), a devout Shia Muslim and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. He was also — no spoiler, because this is not the sort of film in which the killer’s identity is a subject of suspense — a strangler who violently murdered 16 women over a period of just a few months during a killing spree that, as the film begins, he is already more than halfway through.

Abbasi, who co-writes and directs here in a surprisingly straightforward genre register given the weirdness of his troll love story “Border” and his paranoiac pregnancy horror “Shelley,” first follows the trail of one of Saeed’s victims on the last night of her life. It’s a statement of intent, showing a laudable instinct for humanizing and dimensionalizing the victims and their families, who are poignantly depicted despite the brevity of their screen time.

Somayeh (Alice Rahimi) exhaustedly dresses her battered body, kisses her sleeping child goodnight and goes out to stand at her usual spot. She services a couple of clients — another heartbreaking moment sees her in a wealthy, married saffron merchant’s bathroom stealing a dab of his wife’s expensive lotion — before going to score some drugs to gird herself for the night ahead. So she’s woozy when Saeed picks her up on his motorcycle, but not so woozy she doesn’t suddenly sense some imminent danger in the stairwell of his apartment building, and try to get away. Saeed overpowers her and throttles her with her own headscarf right there on the concrete steps, then dumps her body on a hillside nearby. As Martin Dirkov’s excellent, glowering grungy-electro score swells to an almost Vangelis-like crescendo, the camera rises into the night sky to look out over Mashhad (actually Amman, Jordan; for obvious reasons the filmmakers were not permitted to shoot in Iran) and finds a cityscape glittering with seedy, noirish menace.

At home, Saeed is a doting dad to his cute little daughter and teenage son Ali (Mesbah Taleb) and a respectful, almost meek husband to his pretty wife Fatima (Forouzan Jamshidnejad). His family has no idea what he does in their own home on the nights they’re out visiting Fatima’s parents. And perhaps they wouldn’t have found out, were it not for the dogged investigations of Tehran-based journalist Rahimi (a largely fictionalized, composite character played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi). Despite being stonewalled due to her gender at every turn, Rahimi, who has come to Mashhad to report on the killings, teams up with local reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) to discover the killer’s identity.

Unfolding in DP Nadim Carlsen’s darkly elegant, handheld widescreen, cut to an appropriately pacy, thrillerish rhythm by editors Hayedeh Safiyari and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, it’s nonetheless a bit of a disappointment that this part of the narrative should march to such a familiar beat: the plucky girl reporter doing the sleuthing that a corrupt and apathetic police force will not do. But before a final act dealing with the fascinating social fallout once Saeed’s crimes are known and he becomes, in some quarters including his own household, a hero on a righteous moral crusade, Abbasi’s film hews close to this established template.

Even though grimy, scuffed realism is the overriding style, the filmmaker cannot resist a few flashier serial-killer-movie flourishes: a shot of Saeed grinning, lit from below that makes him look momentarily demonic; a glimpse of him sniffing the cooling corpse of one of his victims suggesting a sexual component to his compulsion not necessarily borne out elsewhere; a brief instance of mental breakdown where he imagines the dead sex worker in his living room is laughing at him. These heightened elements slightly undercut Bajestani’s superb performance and the generally persuasive portrayal of Saeed’s ordinariness, his cowardice, his smallness despite the grandiosity of his purported divine crusade.

The great terror (and later, great admiration) the “Spider Killer” inspired did not come from the man, but from a comprehensive environment of female oppression, which is smartly outlined in a few well-judged scenes that exist outside the architecture of the cat-and-mouse thriller. In one, Rahimi is forced to fend off the advances of a police captain (Sina Parvaneh). Earlier, she is treated with casual disdain by the receptionist at her hotel. When the boy Ali is interviewed in the film’s chillingly banal epilogue, it demonstrates how misogyny is a dimension of Iranian society. But pervasive and extreme as it is there, this ecosystem of learned, encouraged behaviors passed proudly on from father (and sometimes mother) to son, is far from specific to this one city, or this one country, or the extremist edge of this one faith.

“Every man shall meet what he wishes to avoid,” reads the film’s foreboding epigraph, holding out the hope that a degree of retributive justice is in store at some point for all the world’s bad men. But every woman in this repressively patriarchal society, and many of us living under far more liberal regimes, likely meet what we wish to avoid more or less every day.

‘Holy Spider’ Review: A Taut, True-Crime Procedural Tangled in the Wicked Web of Iranian Patriarchy

Reviewed in Cannes Film Festival (Competition), May 22, 2022. Running time: 117 MIN.

  • Production: (Denmark-Germany-Sweden-France) A Profile Pictures, One Two Films production, in co-production with Nordisk Film Production, Wild Bunch Int'l, Film i Väst, Why Not Productions, ZDF/ARTE, ARTE France Cinéma. (World sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Producers: Sol Bondy, Jacob Jarek, Ali Abbasi. Co-producers: Eva Åkergren, Calle Marthin, Peter Possne, Fred Burle, Vincent Maraval, Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Olivier Père, Rémi Burah. Executive Producers: Ditte Milsted, Christoph Lange.
  • Crew: Director: Ali Abbasi. Screenplay: Ali Abbasi, Afshin Kamran Bahrami. Camera: Nadim Carlsen. Editors: Hayedeh Safiyari and Olivia Neergaard-Holm. Music: Martin Dirkov.
  • With: Mehdi Bajestani, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad, Alice Rahimi, Sara Fazilat, Sina Parvaneh, Nima Akbarpour, Mesbah Taleb, Firouz Ageli. (Farsi dialogue)