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Holy Spider

Directed by Ali Abbasi (Denmark, 2022)

Review by Sana Nassari


Denmark’s official entry to the ‘best international film’ category in the recent Oscars, Holy Spider is a 2022 crime thriller directed by Denmark-based Iranian filmmaker, Ali Abbasi. Set in Jordan, this grim thriller explores the real story of Saeed Hanaei, (the name changed to Saeed Azimi in the movie), a serial killer who strangled 16 sex workers to death in 2000 and 2001 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad and was hailed by some as a hero. Saeed (played in the movie by Mehdi Bajestani) was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and a construction worker who, allegedly after a taxi driver mistook his wife for a prostitute, started his so-called God-given mission to cleanse the streets of the city of Shia’s eighth Imam of moral filth and corruption. To do so, every weekend, Saeed would take his wife and three children to stay with his in-laws, then prowl around poverty-stricken areas to find victims, whom he would take back to his empty house where he would eventually kill them. 

For years, the streets of Iran have in reality been a threatening place for women to venture, and a glimpse into everyday confrontations with misogynist dangers is interwoven into the spectacle of Holy Spider, especially from the emergence on screen of the female protagonist, Tehrani journalist Arezoo Rahimi (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi). Angered by police negligence in seeking the murderer, Arezoo expands her personal fight against everyday gender discrimination and violence into a broader crusade for truth and justice, to the extent of risking her own life. The narrative frequently switches between Saeed and Arezoo, and we see in passing the miserable lives of oppressed female victims. This helps the director Abbasi offer a rounded, multi-faceted story, but he could have avoided the disruption of the narrative strands by incorporating details of the victims’ lives into the two main strands. 

Holy Spider is successful in picturing the patriarchal ruling order that can even turn a serial killer into a hero in the public eye. The explicit sex scenes, violence, and misogynist hatred might be overwhelming to the point of unendurable for some audiences. It is widely observed that the film’s release is timely, resonating with the misogynist nature of the dogmatically religious rulers against which the Iranian people have finally erupted. Timely, perhaps, to those who have not been subject to 45 years of ongoing injustice – women who have been called prostitutes for revealing a bit of hair or wearing a colourful robe, even if it is all-enveloping. For them, any release of such a sympathetically informing drama could be considered timely. 

Saeed is an incarnation of the Islamic Republic, claiming divine permission to execute people whose lifestyle, beliefs or jobs are contrary to his wishes. Arezoo is asked to withdraw from investigating – benevolently by a colleague, and with violent threats by the police and a judge. Reportedly, Abbasi first asked permission to produce his movie in Iran but was refused by the Islamic Republic authorities, so the movie was shot in Jordan. Eliminating ‘others’ as unacceptable is not only in the concept of the movie, but an experience in the process of its production as well.