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In 2001, in the holy city of Mashad, a construction worker called Saeed Hanaei was arrested for the abduction and the murder of 16 sex workers. Nicknamed the ‘Spider Killer’ by the press, he soon found himself hailed as a hero by the religious right, who fully subscribed to his self-identification as a self-appointed jihadist cleansing the streets of vice and sin. (The story has previously been told in the 2002 documentary Along Came a Spider, and in Ebrahim Irajzad’s 2020 drama Killer Spider.)

Ali Abbasi returns to Cannes after winning the Un Certain Regard prize in 2018 for his Swedish troll-love story Border. Holy Spider is a lot more conventional, playing like any number of moody, well-made Hollywood serial-killer procedurals. We begin with one of the victims, and see the context of her life – the family she is trying to support, the danger and dehumanising sleaze of her work, which is shown with surprising explicitness. When a john brings her to an apartment, she begins to suspect a set up. He strangles her even as she pleads that she has a child. It is a protracted scene of violence, showing strangulation as an act of extreme physical effort on the part of the murderer and terrifying and gruesome on the part of the victim, whose eyes become bloodshot.  

Mehdi Bajestani as Saeed in Holy Spider

Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), the murderer, is a family man, with two young kids who adore him. He works on a building site and in the evenings cruises around on his motorcycle before taking his victims back to the family apartment and strangling them with their hijabs. As the film begins his killing spree is already well under way and a reporter from Tehran, Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), arrives with a mission to hunt down the killer. She believes a police conspiracy is allowing the killer to operate with relative impunity. With the help of a local journalist who’s receiving Zodiac-style calls from Hanaei, she works out the killer’s patterns and sets herself up as bait, with no protection beyond her unarmed ally following in his car.

For all his later professions of holiness, Hanaei seems to revel in the killings and in particular in bringing them close to home. He kills in the family apartment when his wife and kids are at her parents’. He gives his son a ride on the motorbike he uses to transport his victims, and his daughter picks up an apple bitten by one of them. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, he has sex with his wife while the body of a victim lies wrapped in a rug in the same room, the sole of her foot clearly visible.

Whereas Hanaei carries on his killing with a sense of security, Rahimi is constantly faced with misogyny, fending off unwanted advances from the police chief and told to “know her place” when doing something as simple as checking into a hotel. With the odds stacked against her, her barely thought-out plan needs some help from Abbasi and co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami to come good. But perhaps the film wants to suggest the ease with which the killer could have been captured if anyone had actually cared enough.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi as Rahimi in Holy Spider

Abassi’s film is best in portraying Mashad (actually filmed in Jordan), Nadim Carlsen’s cinematography picking out the tungsten shades of the city at night. Martin Dirkov’s electric guitar score pushes us into Hanaei’s rapturous feelings accompanying the violence. The violence is explicitly gruesome going on ghoulish – with definite hints of Hitchcock’s Frenzy – and despite the occasional glimpses we get of the ‘bottomless black hole’, as one relative calls it, of these marginalised women’s lives, the lion’s share of the film places us firmly in Hanaei’s perspective. To that extent we even begin to share his psychosis, but more importantly that of his society. This is an Iranian Psycho as culturally specific as Bret Easton Ellis’s American equivalent.

Ironically, Rahimi and Hanaei share a view of the world hinged on conspiracies. (Hanaei has fantasies about a reactionary group freeing him; Rahimi fears the same.) In reality, patriarchy has no need of conspiracies when it can operate much more effectively out in the open. Everyone blames the women, even their families; Hanaei is lauded as a good Muslim doing his duty. A collection is made to defray his legal costs and the local grocer gives the family produce for free. His own son gleefully reenacts how his father worked – using his baby sister to play a victim – and wonders aloud whether he should take on his father’s “work”.

As a portrait of Iran, this is a deeply, possibly justifiably pessimistic film. But lest we get too high and mighty, let’s recall how the killings of the Yorkshire Ripper became a football chant to taunt the police in England, and how scant sympathy has been extended to the female victims of violence the world around.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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