Misogyny, clothed in rabid religious fanaticism, almost exalts a serial killer in Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider, one of two Iranian entries competing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Holy Spider by Akli Abassi’
Iranian-Danish filmmaker, Ali Abbasi is no stranger to the Cannes festival, his genre drama Border won the Un Certain Regard section of the festival in 2018. Abbasi who has been working on the story for a decade, was inspired by he real events in 2000 and 2001, when Saeed Hanaei, an unhinged killer went on a rampage and killed 16 sex workers in an Iranian city.
Holy Spider takes place in Mashhad, a holy city, the second largest in conservative religious Iran, where sex work is illegal. Leading a seemingly normal life with a wife and three children, Saeed Hanaei is a psychopath disguised as a construction worker. The veneer of his daily life is shattered when he cruises at night to pick up street walkers after sending his family to the safety of his in-laws.
He brings these women home under the guise of sex for money, but proceeds to strangle them to death. In his eyes, they are immoral women and he is doing the divine duty of cleaning the streets of Mashhad. He has a habit of calling an investigative reporter after each murder, directing him to where he dumped the bodies. The film opens in a messy kitchen where a topless woman puts on makeup and lipstick for a night out. As she says goodbye to her child and steps out onto the streets, it quickly becomes apparent that she is a prostitute, providing sex work to men in their homes when their families are away or fellating them in their cars, to earn their living. life.
Scenes like these, otherwise shocking in an Iranian film, are possible in Holy Spider because Ali Abbasi is relieved of the obligations prescribed by the Iranian morality police since the film has minimal association with Iran. Abbasi couldn’t get permission to shoot in Iran, so a Jordanian city replaces Mashhad. With the city blurred in the background, featuring only desolate streets and nondescript squares, Mashhad itself is not a prominent feature of the film. Abbasi catches up with electrifying momentum in the script, propelled by Mehdi Bajestani who plays the title character, the unrepentant killer Saeed Hanaei with bright eyes and a greasy beard. Zahra Amir Ebrahimi is the kind of short-haired, chain-smoking, jeans-under-the-burqa investigative journalist who navigates the treacherously murky bureaucracy to track the serial killer and bring him to justice in a society where misogyny is also common as saffron on the dinner table.
The film shifts its perspective from sex worker to killer to journalist, played with affecting dynamism and piercing gaze by Ebrahimi. By making her alone in the battle to bring the killer to justice, the film pits Rahimi against a system that is both oppressive of women and views them as secondary citizens. Holy Spider’s unwavering focus on showing the psyche of a remorseless killer makes the film a gritty watch. The camera lingers – a little too close for comfort – on Saeed’s face as much as the victim who suffers a brutal, sometimes bloody death, eyes and mouth wide open, gasping for air with broken windpipes. Thanks to Nadim Carlsen’s cinematography, the film’s ominous streets, where dangers lurk, remain an unforgettable detail.
As the film’s focus shifts after Said is captured and about to be proclaimed a national hero, he was just cleaning the streets of immoral women, after all. Shockingly enough, now the son is fully prepared to take up the mantle that his father may soon leave behind. Holy Spider is a daring film from a daring director and its treatment of the subject matter is frank, giving it the feel of a black Persian seat edge. At the same time, it lacks the classic hallmarks of Iranian cinema – rich, nuanced storytelling, filled with detail. Without the climax, the film would have fallen into the irremediable trap of running the risk of painting Saïd as a martyr. That said, it’s precisely because of the bold portrayal of a society where blatant religious morality trumps human rights that Holy Spider is worth watching.
Prathap Nair is a freelance cultural reporting writer based in Germany.
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