REVIEW: Holy Spider (2022)

Zar Amir Ebrahimi in Ali Abbasi’s HOLY SPIDER — PHOTO: TriArt Film / Camera Film.

Directed by Ali Abbasi — Screenplay by Ali Abbasi & Afshin Kamran Bahrami.

In 2022, only a select few films are as timely as Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider. For weeks, people have protested in the streets of Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, after she died in police custody allegedly due to police brutality. As far as I understand it, she was apprehended by the country’s morality police for not wearing the hijab in accordance with their government’s standards, and witness accounts claim that she was then tortured and beaten to death. In Iran, some women are even taking off their hijabs and burning them on bonfires.

And now we have this Ali Abbasi film. Ostensibly, it is a film based on the true story of a serial killer in Iran in 2000 and 2001. But, on the whole, it is a film deeply concerned with the way women were, and are, treated in that patriarchal society, as well as how their view of women is passed down through generations. Reportedly, the film, which has been confirmed as the Danish submission (a co-production between Denmark, Sweden, France, and Germany) for the Best International Film category at the upcoming Oscars, was not allowed to film in Iran, and its lead actress has experienced first-hand how Iran’s morality laws work.

The film primarily follows Rahimi (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a female journalist investigating a serial killer (played by Mehdi Bajestani) who targets sex workers in Mashhad, Iran. As the film goes on, we jump back and forth between the female journalist’s struggle to uncover critical information and the daily life of the serial killer, nicknamed ‘the spider’ because he invites sex workers into his house (his web), where he then often strangles them with their own hijabs before dumping their bodies.

Ali Abbasi’s third feature film really sticks with you. It’s been on my mind ever since I first saw it a couple of days ago. It is a very well-made film, but it is also a film that sends you out of the movie theater in a state of depression and anger. It is a film that needs to be shaken off, I think, as it is a hard watch especially because of how bleak its ending is. The film is unflinching in its depiction of the life of sex workers in Iran. In one of the first shots of the film, we see a woman looking at herself and her naked torso in the mirror before she heads out to make money by selling her body. On this night, she runs into ‘the spider’ and meets her end. It is a brutal opening to the film, and it successfully sets up the mood for the rest of the film. When we are introduced to Rahimi, the aforementioned female journalist, we meet an assertive and pessimistic woman who knows exactly who she is and how the Iranian society will try to trip her up. In one of her first scenes, we see how she is denied a hotel room because she is a single woman, but when she reveals her occupation, she is finally allowed a room.

Abbasi’s film juxtaposes the daily experiences of Rahimi and the serial killer in a way that I think not only exposes the underlying misogyny of the community but also highlights the ease with which the religious and clumsy killer carried out his criminal activities, while an innocent female journalist has to jump through hoops to even do her job; knowing full well that every encounter with a man is inherently dangerous. Every man is a threat to her, almost every encounter is full of tension, and you fully understand why she is pessimistic about her government and police. Meanwhile, the misogyny, repression, and indoctrination are so set in place that, once the serial killer’s identity becomes known, the community and the family support his actions. While some people in power turn a blind eye. Their view of women is so toxic that to certain members of the community, the killer is seen as a hero. That’s what gets passed down. It is so infuriating and depressing.

Spearheaded by the brilliant performance delivered by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, the entire cast uniformly delivers very brave turns. The film has this excellent and effective drone-like score, which is really unsettling, that sits on top of the film and helps to create the dizzying bleak mood. I think there are some really interesting scenes that highlight the killer’s insecurities and delusions (e.g. the killer imagines one of his dead victims laughing at him), and I think the film could’ve used more of these, even though, in general, Abbasi’s gritty and realistic approach (often with a handheld camera) does a lot to set the tone and mood for the film. In general, I think the film runs out of steam in the final third, as the journalist’s pessimism makes it feel like her work is for naught. However, the film does a great job of emphasizing how misogyny is passed down through generations as we see what the killer’s son takes away from the experience.

Very timely, brave, well-made, and controversial, Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is a great film that does an exemplary job of highlighting how cultural misogyny can be passed on to future generations, and it is an illuminating depiction of the Iranian patriarchy and the country’s view of women. It is very bleak, though, which makes it a little bit difficult to recommend to your average moviegoer. Still, I think Abbasi has done a really good job with this one.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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