November 18th, 2022
MOVIE: HOLY SPIDER
STARRING: ZAR AMIR-EBRAHIMI, MEHDI BAJESTANI, ARASH ASHTIANI
DIRECTED BY: ALI ABBASI
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3½ STARS (Out of 4)
Serial killer focused films are not typically among my favorite genres to view. Ali Abbasi’s film Holy Spider goes much deeper than most though and tells a disturbing yet revelatory story based on actual events that took place in 2000 and 2001. The film is Denmark’s Oscar submission this year and has a great and deserved chance at making the list for Best International Feature.
The film was shot in Jordan but takes place in the holy city of Mashhad Iran. The story begins as several women have already been murdered by a supposed serial killer. After one particularly brutal scene, which is reminiscent of scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1972 film Frenzy, Abbasi makes it clear who the killer is. His name is Saeed, a seemingly stable, hard-working, family and community man. Saeed served his country during the 1980s and still feels some guilt for not coming home physically damaged by the experience. Instead he now feels it is his duty to rid the streets of sex workers who he feels are going against the word of Allah.
Saeed is a fascinating character whose layers (like much of the film) get revealed and enriched the further we get into the narrative. Everyone seems to like him. There’s even a hint that he may be connected to the local police who might be protecting him. But while the man commits to his faith with regular prayers, he is also depicted as one who breaks rules when he sees fit. This occurs, in part, when he is engaged in activities with his children and wife. Like the local police that also set their own standards for behavior while in uniform, Saeed represents an entire gender that pose as decent, religiously-minded men while also preying upon women. Given the recent protests in Iran surrounding the rights of women, this film is just as relevant today as it would have been when the actual events took place in the early 2000s.
The strong, daring, but rightfully scared journalist named Rahimi, who arrives to investigate the scene, is played by Zar Amir-Ebrahimi who won the Best Actress award for this role at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. She gives a fierce, determined performance of a woman who must worm her way into what is essentially a male-dominant culture that doesn’t seem very interested in solving this case. The sympathy for women is almost nil as they are more concerned with holding up patriarchal and Islamic rules that they’ve deemed as important to a clean society. Not only are they just as to blame but the son of Saeed represents the notion that this cycle is not likely to change any time soon. He, like many in the local community, views Saeed as a hero for cleaning the streets. It’s a very disturbing thought yet Rahimi attempts to expose as much of it as she can. She is also a woman who has been victimized by a man and has total motivation to see the case to its end.
It should be noted that Holy Spider itself is pretty brutal at times. There is also at least one scene which depicts a woman performing fellatio on Saeed. I wouldn’t say these are in any way gratuitous scenes but they need to be mentioned for those who might be bothered by physical violence and intimacy. Of course, we should also be bothered by the corruption and hubris that are also featured in the film. The disturbance Abbasi wants us to feel is warranted given how much of this still exists in Iran and other parts of the world. It’s hard to not also see how the power and ideals coming from political and religious leaders in many countries can inspire followers who can accept an often very twisted view of reality that in the long run is only hurting more people than it helps.
HOLY SPIDER OPENS FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 18TH, 2022 AT THE GENE SISKEL CENTER IN CHICAGO
3 1/2 STARS
Written by: Dan Pal