Holy Spider (2022) Review
Holy Spider is a film that is hard to erase from the subconscious. A discomfiting watch, the film made by Iranian exile Ali Abbasi (Border, Shelley) chronicles a serial killer in the early 2000s in the holy city of Mashhad, Iran and the female investigative journalist who tracks him down. Saeed Hanaei, given a chilling performance by Mehdi Bajestani (There Are Things You Don’t Know, Whisper), goes by the alias Spider Killer, and his only victims are prostitutes.
The film sets an irrefutable tone not just by introducing the killer at work in the opening of the film but Holy Spider goes a step further to introduce his life. Hanaei is a family man, a builder with a devoted wife and three children. He is also a war veteran, harbouring resentment and anger at having survived the Iran-Iraq war when so many of his compatriots died. He anonymously thrives on the celebrity created by the killings done by his moniker. In pawing through daily news, it’s clear Hanaei thinks highly of himself for his work. More troubling still, he believes he is doing God’s work, as evidenced by his tears shed at the shrine of Imam Reza, a holy figure in the religion of Islam.
Abbasi’s work, though reflecting a true story, is a fictional narrative based on real-life elements. In watching Maziar Bahari’s documentary And Along Came A Spider, he began to create his own fictionalized story crafted from these types of sources. One of these is an unnamed real-life journalist who actually did interview Hanaei in the documentary. Here, we meet the other important player: the journalist, here given the name Arezoo Rahimi, played to perfection by Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Tehran Taboo, Tomorrow We Are Free).
In the film Holy Spider, she comes from Tehran hoping to solve the case of the Spider Killer and links up to develop a working relationship with another detective named Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani, Red Dress. No Straps). Sharifi has more inside information on the killer because the Spider Killer is using him to create more press, mostly through phone calls. Unsurprisingly, the police haven’t captured this killer or even gained his motive.
Through working together on listening to the calls, Rahimi determines with Sharifi that the killer hopes to be venerated for his efforts to wage a war against vice. Once Rahimi and Sharifi gather more intel on the Spider Killer, they put together a plan to track him down. To do that, Sharifi must tail Rahimi as she poses as a woman of the night to ensnare Hanaei.
While Abbasi shies away from the idea that Holy Spider provides social commentary, this certainly is the case. The film is salient in describing the particular socio-economic and political barriers that sexism and misogyny place in front of women, everywhere in the world but most notably in Iran. Like when Rahimi runs into difficulty when trying to purchase a hotel room for her work stay in Mashhad as an unmarried, single woman.
Some buzz about Holy Spider has called the Iranian-language film “prurient”, or “exploitative”. Whether the crime thriller is any or all of these things is less important than the controversial subject matter the film tackles. By putting the viewer in front of the action at all times, but particularly during murder scenes with suffocatingly close camera angles, Abbasi has a way of getting his point across in a deeply unsettling way. Abbasi almost rubs our noses in it-this is a disturbingly troubled man murdering vulnerable women.
The film’s events end on a high note. But it’s clear that Abbasi has one more point to make before the credits roll. And it’s insidious and deadly, spurred by Abbasi’s self-proclaimed belief that “society creates a serial killer”. I really like that concept.
Holy Spider is a solid win from start to finish. I believe that by being a fictionalized narrative and a little slice of “noir”, as the director has called the film, the film is lent a tone of legitimacy. There’s a bit of natural chemistry between the two characters Rahimi and Sharifi as they take down the killer. Even more so, though, I was impressed by the succinct way in which Rahimi relates her negative past experiences with her past journalism employer, who sexually harassed her, to Sharifi. Ebrahimi’s performance of the journalist Rahimi was so nuanced and relatable. She was a highlight of what was a very intriguing film for me.
Though the movie’s subject is deeply disturbing, I found all aspects enjoyable. This included the small cultural details, the beautiful re-creation of Mashhad (the filming took place in Jordan, of course, due to Iranian censorship), to the actors’ stunning performances, to the film’s chilling events. Of course, the timing of the film’s debut is very timely, considering current events in Iran.
Holy Spider is currently playing in select theatres across Canada via Sphere Films. Check local arthouse theatre showtimes near you. If you’re looking for more films like this, FilmTagger can suggest some titles for you.