Review: Holy Spider

More serendipitous timing: This film about a man who murders female prostitutes in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad is being released internationally as Iranian women ramp up their resistance to the fundamentalist regime that has long kept them down. Not surprisingly, the movie was not shot in Iran but in Jordan. Director Ali Abbasi, a native Iranian who now lives and works in Denmark (he is responsible for the curious Danish language body-horror fantasy Border), applied for permission to film in Iran but was refused. It’s easy to understand why, and not just because of the serial killer theme and the attendant sex and violence. The movie takes a sharply negative view of Iran’s treatment of women in general, and never neglects the opportunity to play up the magnitude of misogyny that’s embedded in the country’s laws and cultural attitudes. In that regard, Abbasi gets invaluable help from his lead, Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her performance as the headstrong journalist, Arezoo Rahimi, though in some ways her dominant presence makes you wonder if the character she plays is more of a didactic device than a fully inhabited person.

Though Holy Spider, based on a true story, is a credible thriller, it isn’t a mystery, since we know who the killer is right from the first scene, when the middle aged construction worker Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) stalks an already battered prostitute and then brings her back to his apartment posing as a potential john. He strangles her in the stairway when she starts to get cold feet and then drives out of town with the body and dumps it on the side of a hill. As the movie develops and the murders pile up, we learn that Saeed is married with two children as well as a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War (the movie takes place around 2000-01). The fact that he didn’t die a martyr, as many of his comrades did, has left him guilt-ridden and determined to make his holy mark, and thus he embarks on a crusade to “cleanse the streets” of sinful women who sell their bodies, often to support drug habits. Though Abbasi addresses the origins of these women’s problems, he does it collectively, the result being that the viewer only sees them as victims. Rahimi provides contrast without much depth. She stands up to patronizing officials, including a police officer who demands sex in exchange for intelligence about the murders, and commiserates with the prostitutes, who are afraid to trust her. But between these two extremes of feminine constructs there is only Saeed’s wife, who is positioned to represent the requisite figure of complacency—the nurturer. 

Abbasi falls back on thriller cliches that undermine his aims, and often the audience has to take the motivations depicted at face value. But the final third of the film is bracingly effective in showing the base hypocrisy of the judicial and penal systems, as well as the dogma that props them up. It’s obvious to Rahimi from the beginning that the authorities aren’t so interested in catching the Spider Killer, as he’s referred to in the press, because they think he really is cleaning up the streets, but after she forces their hand they find new ways of covering their asses while making the appropriate noises about justice and purity of purpose. 

In Farsi. Opens April 14 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Holy Spider home page in Japanese

photo (c) Profile Pictures/One Two Films

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