When this film won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival, the regime in Tehran issued a statement condemning the award as an ”insulting and politically-motivated move”. What made it worse was that the regime made an irresponsible comparison with ”The Satanic Verses”, reminding the world of the dangerous fatwa that was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, which led to riots, murders and multiple assassination attempts against the author of the novel, Salman Rushdie. Hateful words and acts by the Iranian regime can easily trigger believers’ worst instincts. The people who made Holy Spider are truly courageous.
Prostitutes strangled with their headscarves
Journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) travels from Tehran to the holy city of Mashhad to investigate a series of murders. The victims are all prostitutes, strangled with their own headscarves. As soon as Arezoo arrives at her hotel, the clerk questions why she’s traveling unaccompanied and it’s only when she tells him that she’s a reporter that he reluctantly agrees to give her a hotel room. Arezoo is used to some degree of freedom, but she knows that she has to watch herself in a place like Mashhad. Working together with a male journalist, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), Arezoo starts working the streets and makes contact with the local police, who are far from cooperative.
The killer is not exactly a mystery. He’s Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), a family man who manages to keep his extracurricular activities a secret, even though some of the victims are murdered in his apartment while the family is away. Saeed considers himself a man on a mission…
Inspiring a popular movement
The story was based on actual events. Saeed Hanaei killed 16 prostitutes in 2000-2001. At that time, future filmmaker Ali Abbasi was a student in Tehran and became fascinated by the whole affair. During the trial, Hanaei explained his motives, inspiring a popular movement; by some, he was seen as a hero who had punished sinful women. After Hanaei’s execution in 2002, Abbasi saw a documentary made the same year, And Along Came a Spider. The media had dubbed him ”The Spider Killer”, because of his habit to lure victims to his home, and in the documentary Hanaei was interviewed.
After his breakthrough with Border (2018), Abbasi could finally get this dream project made, but a lot had changed in the process. The director had decided to introduce a fictional element in the shape of a female reporter, partially inspired by a journalist who had worked on that 2002 documentary. His intention was to combine the portrait of a serial killer with an examination of Iran’s fundamental problem with misogyny. He also indulged certain conspiratorial aspects of the Hanaei case; maybe the killer did enjoy some protection from the corrupt male establishment of priests and policemen.
Abbasi may not have been looking to do a traditional serial killer movie, but it still has those elements.
Everything about this movie is riveting, its background story, the production of it and the final results. Abbasi gets his points across with great skill. He may not have been looking to do a traditional serial killer movie, but it still has those elements; it’s a story with lots of tension and discomfort. There’s also black humor as we follow Saeed on his sometimes clumsy quest.
The misogyny that Arezoo has to deal with every day makes it easy to believe the moral rot that causes people to celebrate Saeed as a hero; it isn’t a pretty portrait of Iran’s culture. Icing on the cake in this highly unusual film (that was shot in Jordan) is the cast. Ebrahimi, who was initially hired as the film’s casting director, and Bajestani are both very good.
Holy Spider 2022-Denmark-Germany-Sweden-France. 117 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Ali Abbasi, Sol Bondy, Jacob Jarek. Directed by Ali Abbasi. Screenplay: Ali Abbasi, Afshin Kamran Bahrami. Cast: Mehdi Bajestani (Saeed Hanaei), Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Arezoo Rahimi), Arash Ashtiani (Sharifi), Forouzan Jamshidnejad, Sina Parvaneh, Nima Akbarpour.
Cannes: Best Actress (Ebrahimi).
Last word: “In a really strange way, I felt sympathy for [Hanaei], really against my own will. I think there was a psychotic element to the pleasure-seeking aspect of his murders, the twisted sexuality and whatnot, but there was also this strange innocence about him. It was more about how a society creates a serial killer. […] The misogyny didn’t start with the Islamic Revolution. The limitations that have been in place for women in Iran for the past 50 years are crazy.” (Abbasi, Indiewire)