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Holy Spider Review

Holy Spider Review

Between 2000 and 2001, Saeed Hanaei murdered sixteen women in the Iranian city of Mashhad; he was deemed ‘the Spider Killer’ for the way he wrapped their bodies in their chadors afterward. Because these women were sex workers, for a horrifyingly large segment of the Iranian populace, his killings were treated as a heroic moral crusade. Delving into the case, albeit with a large dose of artistic license, is Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider.

The film splits its focus between Saeed (played by Mehdi Bajestani), whose killing spree is conducted unbeknownst to his wife and young children, and Arezoo (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) – a female journalist (and a fictional construct for the movie) who arrives in Mashhad determined to catch him. As she comes up against a male establishment that seems distinctly unmotivated in their quest to stop the killings, Arezoo decides she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.

Whilst Holy Spider depicts acts of horrifying violence against women, less dramatic acts certainly leave their mark too. When we first meet our heroine, her simple attempt to get a hotel room as an unmarried woman becomes a titanic battle. Throughout her investigation, she’s caught between stalls – when she tries to assertively extricate information from reluctant authorities, she’s told “Know your place, miss!”, but when she tries a softer approach, it’s seen as a come-on from the male law enforcement with whom she’s trying to work. It’s an impossible situation.

Playing a character charged with bearing the weight of all the crimes, both major and minor, committed against Iranian women, Zar Amir Ebrahimi is formidable. Her face is a mask of weary, stubborn fury; with her every breath, you can feel the exhausting weight of being a woman just trying to exist in such a hostile environment. Like many top flight Iranian actresses, Ebrahimi has been living out of the country for years after falling foul of rigid and hypocritical morality codes (the film itself was shot in Jordan to allow more freedom during production), and her real-life experience adds tangible authenticity to an already ferocious performance.

Holy Spider is an unnerving watch, as it should be. Still, there are valid arguments to be made against its depiction of violence towards women, which can be uncomfortably – perhaps unnecessarily – lingering. Less troublingly, and yet still worthy of note, is the film’s overfondness of serial killer clichés (of course, Saeed phones the police after each murder) and overall lack of subtlety.

Yet at a time when Iran’s appalling behaviour towards women has been making headlines all over the world, a lack of subtlety is perhaps the last thing that Holy Spider needed. In each scene, the film underlines that, though Hanaei’s crimes were committed by one man, the state’s abhorrent misogyny was just as much as to blame for his murder spree. A chilling coda makes it clear that, as long as Iran continues to treat its female citizens with such cruelty at a societal level, then the country will be fertile ground for the next Spider Killer.


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