‘Holy Spider’ – Review

Holy Spider is an unsettling, impactful analysis on how misogyny and gender-based violence outlast the actions of one man due to environments and attitudes that allow it to persevere.

A woman is walking down the shady streets of Mashhad in the dark. The camera lingers on her bold lips and leopard headscarf as she puts herself together to complete the rounds she needs to do in order to reach her monetary goal for the night. The motivations of this impoverished mother are understandable, but the risk she takes to her own life just to survive in her current socioeconomic standing adds a sense of discomfort. The night comes to an abrupt ending when a potential customer offers her a ride on his bike to his apartment where he strangles her. Ominous music starts playing as the camera pans out to reveal a nighttime aerial shot over the holy city displaying the title card. This is a warning for the horrors the audience is about to witness.

Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider follows the real-life story of Saeed Hanaei’s (Mehdi Bajestani) killing of 16 female sex workers in the early 2000s. It features the invented character of Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) to add a journalistic layer to the narrative to investigate the killings as they occur. She serves as a representation of a relatable progressive view for the audience to follow in a society that disrespects women. Throughout her investigation, Rahimi faces misogyny at every corner, from meeting with multiple law enforcement officials who are very degrading towards her investigation to almost being denied a room because she has traveled alone.

The film doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of Hanaei’s murders, but it doesn’t glorify or romanticize his actions like so many recent true crime projects. The nature of his killing stems from his belief that God chose him to rid society of corrupt women. As the investigation continues on, more about Saeed’s home life is revealed to the audience. At glance he seems like a normal man who works construction and has a wife and kids. When he suddenly slips into a killer who overpowers the victims he brings home it grows disturbing how effortless and almost routine it becomes. The most horrific aspect of it all is not the killings, but the support from the Iranian society for what he is doing and his inability to feel any shame for his actions. Under its serial killer premise, this is really a character study that isn’t trying to empathize with its antagonist.

To add to this harsh reality of gender-violence, the cinematography is raw and gritty featuring handheld camera movements. The constant rocking feels like you are targeted as one of the Spider Killer’s prey. The tension in this film matches those of the horror genre. It switches between two different ideologies of Saeed’s unstable psyche and Rahimi’s willingness to put her life in danger to bring justice to these “corrupt” women so the world will know the truth. Its focus on making this feel like a nightmare and not an aesthetic is so refreshing for the true crime genre.

Social commentary about the patriarchy and religious fundamentalism in Iran can be found all through this film. By using a fictional female journalist, the film is able to journey through the systematic and misogynistic difficulties women face on an everyday basis. It is persistent in exploring these injustices towards women. One of the most important messages is how stopping one man’s actions doesn’t stop misogyny overall because it finds other ways to manifest within societal systems.

Even though this film is set in 2000, it feels extremely relevant to current times especially following the recent uprisings against the Iranian government for the death of Mahsa Amini. It is a grotesque portrait of religious extremism and misogyny that continues to invite gender violence for a place to stay.

Grade: B+

Oscars Prospects:
Likely: Best International Film
Should be Considered: Best Original Score, Best Lead Actress

Where to Watch: In Theaters

Jillian Chilingerian
she/her @JillianChili
Lives in LA
Favorite Director: David Fincher
Sign: Leo

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