BFI LFF 2022: Holy Spider

Holy Spider, angrily written and directed by Ali Abbasi (Border), and screening at the BFI London Film Festival, is a grisly, reality-based story of violence against women in a patriarchal, theocratic society.

Caught in society's web

by Alexa Dalby

Holy Spider

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Even though Holy Spider is based on true events, so you may already know what happened, this is so suspenseful that it set my heart pounding throughout. Denmark-based director Ali Abbasi (in contrast to his previous film, the magic-realist Border) has made a very angry film about the state of his native country. It competed in the official selection at Cannes in 2022.

In 2000-2001, a serial killer in the Iranian city of Mashhad – holy because of its shrine to Imam Reza (the eighth Shia imam) – murdered 16 prostitutes. Those we see in the film are mainly desperately poor with a family to support or pathetic drug users. The killer (dubbed the Spider Killer because of the way he lures the women) in real life and in the film was a religious fanatic who believed he was ‘cleansing’ the holy city of immorality.

Holy Spider is seen from two diametrically opposed points of view. One is the invented character of a progressive female reporter from Tehran, Arezoo Rashimi, (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her portrayal) who goes to Mashhad to investigate the crimes, since the police have made no progress, possibly because the killings suit them, in a way doing their job for them.

Shot from above, the lights of the city spread out like a spider’s web as she arrives warily at night, amid the darkness and unfamiliar sounds of a strange city, a vulnerable situation any woman could identify with.

The other point of view is that of the killer himself, here renamed Saeed Azimi (stupendously played by Mehdi BajestaniMehdi Bajestani in the performance of a lifetime). He is a construction worker and devoted family man who picks up prostitutes, lures them to his home while his family are out, and disposes of their corpses by taking them to a rubbish tip, all on his motorbike.

At first we don’t see his face. But then he becomes a more real presence, more audacious, more tortured. He is carrying out a personal fatwa, in particular against prostitutes who ply their trade by the holy shrine, but it’s ambiguous whether he gets sexual pleasure from it. There’s a most chilling scene when his wife arrives home unexpectedly from a visit to her parents. As they have sex he catches sight of the foot of the prostitute he has just murdered and rolled in a carpet but not had time to dispose of.

Holy Spider is a gripping, film noir portrait of a deep-rooted patriarchal, misogynistic society – political, religious and cultural – and what Abbasi terms the intergenerational imprinting of these prejudices, personified by the killer’s hero-worshipping teenage son Ali (Mesbah Taleb) and the approving support of many locals for his removal of what they see as ‘corrupt’ women.

Women’s lives simply don’t matter in a society where any woman, no matter who she is, is subject to many everyday opressions and slights, such as when Ms Rashimi checks into her hotel as a single woman and is threatened with the morality police about her improper wearing of her hijab, and her run-of-the-mill sexual harassment from men in religious or police authority. Prostitutes’ lives matter even less. In a horrible irony, the killer strangles them with their own headscarves. These sequences are almost unbearably graphic, as is the killer’s fate.

Rashimi, in desperation at police inaction, makes herself the bait to catch the killer by posing as a prostitute, helped by an unusually sympathetic local journalist Mr Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), the only kind man represented. The suspense when their plan starts to go wrong is almost killing.

Holy Spider‘s release is sadly very timely in view of the still ongoing protests in Iran, which women were instrumental in starting, caused by the death in custody by the morality police of Mahsa Amiri for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly. It’s a must-see on many counts.

Holy Spider was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered on 22 May 2022. Zar Amir-Ebrahimi won the festival’s Best Actress Award. It screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 9 and 10 October 2022. The film was selected as the Danish entry for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards and made the December 2022 shortlist.

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