Cannes 2022 review: Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)

“A film that explored just the aftermath of Hanaei’s arrest, with all its thorny socio-political aspects, would have perhaps made for a more interesting film, but as a layered thriller around a famous Iranian crime case Holy Spider works on most levels.”

Between 2000 and 2001, sixteen female sex workers, often drug addicts, fell victim to a serial killer in the holy city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran. The killer was eventually identified as Saeed Hanaei. After his arrest Hanaei, an unassuming construction worker, claimed he wanted to cleanse the streets of the city of morally corrupt women. He was dubbed the ‘Spider Killer’ because he lured the women into his own home to then strangle them, before wrapping their bodies and dumping them outside the city. During his trial conservative hard-liners supported his actions, but the courts still sentenced him to die, and Hanaei was executed in April of 2002.

Two years after another film about the case, Killer Spider, Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi returns to the Croisette after winning the Un Certain Regard prize in 2018 to tell this story from the fictional angle of a female journalist, Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), who travels from Tehran to Mashhad to cover the case. The film was shot in Jordan, since shooting a film about such a sensitive topic in Mashhad of all places was impossible (the authorities didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes either, which implicitly means ‘no’). Certain topics are taboo in Iranian cinema, such as nudity, sex, drug use, and prostitution, even if they are all a part of Iranian society, and since Holy Spider doesn’t exactly shy away from any of it the film could never be made within the framework of Iranian censorship.

Rahimi arrives in Mashhad to team up with a fellow (male) journalist, who the killer contacts after each victim to ensure his ‘work’ stays in the news. She tries to get information from the local police about the investigation, but is met with hostility and outright threatened to drop the story. Taking matters into her own hands, she embeds herself in the dark underbelly of Mashhad, trying to draw the spider out of his hiding place.

Intertwined with Rahimi’s story is that of Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani). Exposing him as the killer from the beginning, Saeed is presented as a family man, a loving father and husband, but also as the ruthless murderer that he is, picking up women on his motorbike and strangling them at his home while his wife is away visiting family. At no point does the film excuse his actions, but it does show how such a man could live in Iranian society without being noticed. Once Saeed is arrested, his neighbours and friends support him, a crowd showing up outside the courthouse demanding his freedom.

It’s here, in the film’s final third, that Holy Spider becomes truly interesting, willing as it is to tackle the political, religious, and social angles of the case and the relationship among the three in Iranian society as a whole. An investigative journalist at the time, in part inspiration for the character of Rahimi, reported that Hanaei’s last words were “this was not the deal“, suggesting there was a deal made in the first place to let him escape his fate. Although there is no hard evidence for it, the film does suggest that such a deal existed, mandated by both political and religious leadership.

The earlier acts are a deliciously noir-ish look at the darker corners of Mashhad and Iranian society as a whole, but don’t amount to much more than a well-staged thriller, with an excellent performance by Ebrahimi. The actress, who fled Iran after an explicit private video of hers was leaked, effectively ending her career, embodies Rahimi with a mixture of no-nonsense feistiness and flitting nervousness, tenaciously holding on to the case to the point of coming within an inch of her own life. Much will be made of the scenes in which Saeed kills some of his victims, displayed in all their naked violence, but while disturbing to some they never feel exploitative. Which cannot be said about the opening scene, which features an unnecessarily explicit blowjob (fake though it may be) and some sensationalist, over-the-top language.

What Holy Spider tries to do is paint a more realistic picture than most films coming out of Iran do, especially when it comes to the position and the lives of women within its society. It shows a darker side that is rarely seen, but doesn’t revel in it. A film that explored just the aftermath of Hanaei’s arrest, with all its thorny socio-political aspects, would have perhaps made for a more interesting film, but as a layered thriller around a famous Iranian crime case Holy Spider works on most levels. Those expecting something more outside the box after Abbasi’s previous film Border will be disappointed, but those with interest in Iran and the case itself will appreciate Abbasi’s honest look at it.