Director: Ali Abbasi (Denmark, Germany, Sweden, France). Year of Release: 2022
The holy city of Mashhad. We see a semi-naked woman from the back, looking in her bathroom mirror as she puts on her bra and a bit of lippy. She says good bye to her young child before taking to the streets. As she stands on the corner, her hijab slightly askew, cars stop past and men talk to her. She gets in a car. As she is halfway through giving the driver a blow job, we hear police sirens, and he violently pushes her to the floor. Then he underpays her for a half-finished job.
After a brief stop to score some opium, the woman is picked up by a man on a motorbike. She reluctantly joins him, sensing that something is amiss, but eventually she gets on behind him and he drives to his flat. A television blaring news of the 9/11 attacks give us a sense of time. Soon the man becomes increasingly violent, and calls the woman a whore. He hits her and then puts his fingers round her throat, finishing off the job with her hijab.
The opening credits haven’t rolled yet, and we are already disorientated. The woman who we had presumed was going to be the film’s central character is apparently dead. We soon see a second woman trying to book a room at a hotel. Noticing that she’s a single woman on her own, they tell her that they’re fully booked despite her reservation. It is only after she produces her journalists’ card that they refind her room. Even then they tell her off for bad hijab.
Holy Spider isn’t really a whodunnit as we know that pretty much from the start. We soon see scenes of Saeed with his family, telling his son to hold on when sitting pillion on his motorbike, just as he said the same to the women he took to their murders. Saeed is a builder and a veteran of the 1980s war with Iraq. This is all based on a true story from the beginning of the Millennium of someone with a similar background who killed 16 women who he thought were prostitutes.
The journalist Rahimi, though, is almost entirely fictional. On one level, this is not a problem. Most films are improved with the introduction of a chain smoking bolshie woman who has been sacked for calling out her boss for sexual harassment. On the other, her role is often formulaic, not least when she decides to pose as a prostitute to track down the killer, even though all she is armed with is a small knife and a man in a car some way back in the distance.
All this means that Holy Spider is a film which contains little dramatic tension, as we roughly know what’s going to happen. But its righteousness means that this is not a big problem. Of course Rahimi has to deal with a patronising police chief who doesn’t seem concerned about tracking down a serial killer because the victims are mainly prostitutes. Of course the people in charge of the courts are friendly towards Saeed and seem to offer him a way out. What else do you expect?
Nonetheless, for a film which is so keen to bash the patriarchy, we see a little too much gratuitous violence against women. We do not need to see Saeed bludgeoning a woman to death, and we certainly do not need to see similar scenes repeated throughout the film. You could argue that these scenes make us face up to the reality of Saeed’s brutality, but they all contain a certain “look at me” quality that make you think that the director is showing off what he can get away with.
The film is much more effective at portraying Saeed’s motivation, and refusing to show him as simply a senseless killer. The film opens with Iran experiencing a drought, with the bone dry streets waiting for a real rain to come and wash all this scum off the streets. In this sense, Saeed is a modern day Travis Bickle – certainly evil, but driven by a conviction that the women who he is killing are depraved and thus responsible for their own fate.
Unlike Bickle, Saeed is not alone in his opinion. His wife supports him to the hilt, using similar language explaining why the victims deserved everything they get. When Saeed is caught and tried, demonstrators take to the streets demanding his release. One of the most effective scenes is a video of his two young children – his son re-enacts exactly how dad brutally murdered 16 women, while his cute daughter lies on the carpet saying “I am a corpse”.
Saeed’s sense of purpose means that, unlike many films about serial killers, his actions are not attributed to things beyond our ken, or him just being mad. Indeed, Saeed’s wife manages to plea bargain for him – if he tells the court that he was deranged, the pliant judge might just be prepared to let him off. But Saeed is on a (inappropriate word but I can’t think of a better one) Crusade. He does what he does because of personal belief, and a system which legitimizes this belief.
Following recent developments in Iran, and ongoing attacks on women’s rights, Holy Spider has received a sad new relevance. But I think that it would be wrong to see it as a peculiarly Iranian film. I grew up in Bradford, home of the Yorkshire Ripper, a home grown serial killer. The police showed little interest until it was found that one of the victims was not a prostitute. Even then, their main advice was to tell women to stay at home. So the film tells some universal truths.
I don’t think that everything in Holy Spider works- We are sometimes left to attribute everything from Saeed’s abuse to police incompetence to the patriarchy without considering more deeply how they are connected- A braver film may have done more. But this is still a very watchable film which takes on a very serious issue, and for this it can only be commended.