The Austin Chronicle

Holy Spider

Not rated, 116 min. Directed by Ali Abbasi. Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad, Sina Parvaneh.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 11, 2022

Something evil lurks in the holy city of Mashhad in Iran. As Muslim pilgrims flock to visit the city’s shrines, grisly slayings of female sex workers strangled with their own hijabs are occurring in the shadow of its holy edifices. The serial murders are unsolved and the police aren’t investigating with much vigor. After all, someone is cleansing the streets of sinful, opium-addicted women. Although the vigilante justice meted out is horrific, it seems to many a small price to pay for civic purification.

Has Travis Bickle fled Times Square for Iran? Is a homicidal misogynist on the loose amid the holy shrines? Or is a devout Muslim waging jihad against prostitution? Holy Spider is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 women in Mashhad in 2000-2001. Dubbed the Holy Spider, Hanaei was an ordinary construction worker, war veteran, and family man with three children. Iran-born and Denmark-based director and co-screenwriter Ali Abbasi (Border) uses Hanaei’s sickening spree as the basis for this disturbing crime thriller.

There is no mystery to solve in Holy Spider since viewers see from the outset the perpetrator and his methods. Why he does what he does and whether he will ever be caught are the film’s only mysteries. In the process, the film implicates a society and religion that make allowances for his behavior and its justifications.

The rapes and murders are gruesome, and we witness several. This is not a film for the squeamish or those easily triggered. However, as we begin to follow the trail of journalist Areez Rahimi (Ebrahimi, who received the Best Actress award at Cannes for this role), the film becomes a very effective thriller. Through her, we also experience the country’s entrenched misogyny. At first, she is refused a hotel room because she is a single woman; after the Holy Spider is caught, Rahimi is defamed for her past effrontery of accusing a newspaper superior of sexual harassment. Whether seducing men as sex workers or holding them to account as predators, women in Iran are victims of theocratic rule.

As good as Ebrahimi is as the truth-seeking reporter, notice must also be given to Bajestani in the thankless role of Saeed Hanaei. We see a great deal of the serial killer’s home life and what’s most striking in the end is the banality of evil. The horrifying details of the killings stand in stark contrast to the ordinariness of Hanaei’s life. Abbasi brings us face to face with the disturbing attacks in order to prick the social norms that uphold violence against women. Misogyny cloaked in the holy name of religion is still misogyny.

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