INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OF INDIA 2022 REVIEW! Director Ali Abbasi’s third feature, Holy Spider, is based on serial murders that happened in Iran in 2002. Written by Abbasi and Afshin Kamran Bahrami, the film is about Saeed Hanaei, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, who took upon himself a “cleansing Iran of filth,” calling it a jihad. Targeting sex workers in the streets of Mashhad, Hanaei murdered sixteen women and dumped their bodies. It’s one of the most heinous crimes in the country. The killer was given the nickname Spider Killer.
The film begins like a traditional crime thriller. We see a silhouette picking up a prostitute off the streets and taking her up to an apartment. He kills her and dumps her body. Not long after, Saeed Azmi (Mehdi Bajestani) is revealed to be the one drifting through the city of Mashhad at night, picking up victims. A family man, Saeed lives a respectful life in the suburbs with his wife and two kid. All of them are unaware of his criminal activities. That’s one sign that this won’t be just about catching and unmasking the culprit.
Bajestani looks the part and quite impeccably executes the role. While working his day job and handling family affairs, he is calm, composed, well-loved, and respected. But then, portraying Saeed’s other, true self, Bajestani brings anger, obsession, and a wicked sense of morality. His body language induces fright, while his thoughts and actions make you immediately hate him.
“…Hanaei murdered sixteen women and dumped their bodies.”
But it’s Zar Amir Ebrahimi who uplifts Holy Spider from a 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 the 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 hair visible. This is the first of many layers of the study into morality policing, gender bias, and stereotyping against women in Iran.
Rahimi is fictional, but the filmmakers’ motives behind delving into a two-decade-old case make sense with a strong female protagonist. The character stands in for the actual situation of women’s rights and liberties in Iran. Abbasi’s Holy Spider is perhaps coming 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 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.
"…a brutally honest take on the deep-rooted, orthodoxical ideals and their fatal outcomes."