Holy Spider presents a mixture of religious beliefs and extreme morality set in 21st century Iran. We follow Rahimi (Cannes best actress winner Zar Emir Ebrahimi) working as a journalist trying to uncover the identity of serial killer Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bejestani), who targets sex workers under the guise of cleansing them of their sins. Following this killer’s clearly heinous acts and bleak intentions, there is an ambiguity that is erased from the story. Abassi is forced to turn Saeed into a looming presence instead of a sharp social commentary. Moral corruption is only seen through the perspective of Saeed, who feels his victims are not right for this world. The movie is at its most interesting when he doesn’t realize he isn’t either.
Abassi finds himself stuck in a corner as to what to say with his true crime story. I was surprised to learn this film was based real events; it feels underdiscussed, and doesn’t live in infamy like other grisly killers have. Besides adhering to the faces of the players involved with Saeed’s murders, what’s there to say about him? Rahimi stakes an aggressive investigation against the killer; that he targets the weak, in sex workers, is indictive in how society sees them as disposable. Rahimi even goes as far to use herself as bait for Saeed, disguising herself as a sex worker, only for Saeed to pick her up in the most harrowing scene of the film. While largely an effective procedural, Holy Spider is largely a toothless commentary on violence and morality.
That said, the Border director does continue to be a well measured actors’ director. Ebrahimi breathes so much life into Rahimi, you feel her pain and empathy as she learns about the victims, feeling more and more helpless as the film goes on. She holds basically in every scene of the movie with such grace and agency, realizing that religion is used toward ends which may not look inexcusable in the eyes of the law. As other reviewers have noted, we follow Saeed to such a degree where it becomes a perspective problem. We know what he is doing is wrong, and he begins to steal the core of the film from Rahimi– begging the question of how completely Abassi condemns Saeed, or if the real-life events suggest there isn’t a way to denounce these actions considering the religious extremes.
There is serious tension within the violence, as Saeed grows senseless with how much passion these murders carry with them. He has no remorse, and believes that nobody else is going to clean the streets but him (and maybe even benefits from the police looking the other way). It’s this inherent feeling of dread where the film does shine, as we wonder when– no, if– our lead investigator will catch our killer. When he is caught and faces judgement, the film gives Saeed an undeserved sense of humanity, revealing that he is a husband and a father of three. His son wants to believe his dad’s religion was a viable excuse for his cruelty, but the ending suggests otherwise. How Saeed expected his family to react is just as indictive of how careless he was in committing these crimes in the first place. It’s this bit of tragedy that Holy Spider should have inserted itself into rather than a crime procedural, leaving its victims to be less realized by the film than anticipated.
dir Ali Abassi
Opens Friday, 12/14 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre