Holy Spider (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Based on one real-life Iranian serial killing case

Ali Abbasi’s third feature film “Holy Spider”, which was selected as the Danish submission to Best International Film Oscar in last year and then included in the finalist in this category, is a calm but angry crime thriller film loosely based on one shocking real-life Iranian serial killing case between 2000 and 2001. While it is compelling to watch how its fictional journalist heroine doggedly continues her investigation, it is also quite chilling to observe how the killer could kill no less than 16 women under social ignorance and prejudice, and the movie eventually makes a sharply urgent point on how he is just a mere tip of the deeply misogynistic aspects of the Iranian society.

After the gut-wrenching opening sequence showing the last night of the killer’s latest victim, the movie introduces us to a young female journalist named Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), who comes to Mashhad, Iran for reporting on the ongoing serial case which has already been terrorizing the whole city. The killer has already killed 9 women, but the local police still have no clue for tracking down any possible suspect, and they certainly do not welcome Rahimi much when she begins to look into the case with some help from Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), a generous local male newspaper reporter who always receives a call from the killer whenever the killer did his latest killing.

It is clear from the recording of one phone call from the killer that he is driven by his religiously fanatic motive. All of those murdered women are prostitutes working on night streets, and the killer believes that he is simply cleaning the streets for the god as getting rid of those “faithless” women one by one. After all, Mashhad has been regarded as a major holy place for years, and those prostitutes are a big affront to the city in his twisted viewpoint.

On the surface, everyone in the city seems to want to see the end of this serial killing case, but Rahimi cannot help but notice how the local police and other influential officials do not have much interest in solving the case. They do not have much pity and sympathy toward those murdered prostitutes due to their prejudice and misogyny, and they certainly show lots of condescension to Rahimi when she tactfully approaches to them for getting more information about the case. As a matter of fact, one of them blatantly attempts to get closer to her at when they happen to be in the same room without anyone else, and that is certainly one of the most disturbing moments in the film.

Nevertheless, Rahimi is not deterred at all as feeling more concern and sympathy toward those many prostitutes out there, most of whom have no choice to go outside as usual due to their poor economic condition. With some help from Sharifi, she finds a usual area where the killer looks for his latest victim, and there eventually comes a point where she may get closer to the killer at last.

In the meantime, the screenplay by Abbasi and his co-writer Kamran Bahrami also pays considerable attention to the killer’s daily life. He is merely a struggling construction worker named Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), and we are chilled more as he casually alternates between his banal family life and his unspeakable nocturnal activity. He usually tries to remain fine and all right, but the people around him including his wife sense something wrong from him at times, while still having no idea on what he has been doing behind his back. It is implied that he has some post-traumatic stress disorder issue as a war veteran, and we come to gather that has fueled his murderous impulse along with the deep discontent with his current status of life.

The movie does not flinch that much in case of the depiction of his several killings. These horrific scenes in the film are quite unpleasant and grueling to watch to say the least, but the movie thankfully avoids being sensational or exploitative as presenting them with enough restraint and skill, and it also handles those victim characters in the film with a bit of care and compassion, even though they just briefly appear in the movie.

In addition, Abbasi and his crew members including cinematographer Nadmi Carlsen did a splendid job of immersing us into the unnerving atmosphere surrounding the heroine of the film. Although the movie was mainly shot in Jordan, the locations used in the film look fairly authentic on the screen as far as I heard from other reviewers, and that surely brings considerable realism and verisimilitude to the film.

The movie also depends a lot on the effectiveness of its two lead performers. Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who deservedly won the Best Actress award when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, gives an unadorned but strong performance which comes to function as the human anchor of the story, and she is particularly terrific when her character silently observes more hypocrisy and misogyny from the local legal system later in the story. On the opposite, Mehdi Bajestani ably embodies the banality of evil observed from his deplorable character, and he also handles well a few darkly absurd scenes showing how his character is as banal and insignificant as many other real-life serial killers out there.

On the whole, “Holy Spider” is definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is still worthwhile to watch thanks to Abbasi’s skillful direction and the admirable efforts from his two lead performers. Considering the current political situation in the Iranian society at present, the main subject of the film feels quite timely to say the least, and its deeply disturbing final scene will linger on your mind for a while.

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