Cannes Review: Ali Abbasi returns to Cannes with the terrifying Persian noir ‘Holy Spider’ [Grade: B+]
Four years after Border won the top prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard strand, Iranian-born filmmaker Ali Abbasi sparked a lively debate with his new feature, Holy Spider, a crime thriller inspired by real life events. The film is based on the story of the so-called ‘Spider Killer’ Saeed Hanaei who murdered sixteen women between 2000 and 2001 – he saw himself as a God-sent savior and the women as deserving. Even if the film has authorities trying to exert secular power in the process of persecution and conviction, it’s clear enough that it was Hanaei’s conservative messianist thinking that drove him to commit horrendous deeds against Iran’s most vulnerable: women sex workers.
Holy Spider takes place in the city of Mashhad, known as the spiritual capital of Iran with its Sunit Shrine dedicated to Imam Reza, whose martyrdom attracts millions of pilgrims every year. What’s striking about the film in its production context is the commitment to realism which Abbasi has fought hard to follow through. While shooting on location in Iran was made impossible, the crew relocated to Jordan and shot in Amman, making use of how the city’s underground lent itself to imaginary substitution. In this case, attending to realism conceals many dangers but there was no doubt for Abbasi that the ethically motivated approach would breach subjects tabooed in Post-Revolution Iranian cinema such as sex, sex work, and drug use.
From early on, the film parallels the stories of Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), Iran-Iraq war veteran, family man and anti-vice crusader, and female journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) who is set to catch him by posing as a sex worker herself. Abbasi borrowed the figure of a woman journalist from Maziar Bahari’s documentary And Along Came a Spider (2002) and made her the actual protagonist of the film, played by an actress who has been involved in the film’s making since the very beginning fifteen years ago. By shifting the leading perspective to a female point of view, the Holy Spider does not necessarily seek to rectify the historical and ongoing mistreatment of the killer’s victims, but the alternation from one storyline to another suggests that complex factors are at play and the real challenge is avoiding not only reductionist interpretations, but also dogmatism – the thing the film set itself to criticize in the first place.
Aesthetically, the film is dark and even the daytime scenes are drenched in ashy undertones. The closer one gets, the clearer it is to see life departing from the open mouths of the sex worker victims, from the faces of the uncooperative policemen, and the ruination of the suburbs. Border DoP Nadim Carlsen’s camerawork holds tight to the characters as they wrestle in a deadly embrace but never crossing the line into excessively gratuitous violence. Consequently, as stylistically apt as the description of Holy Spider as a noir might be, it cannot be further removed from its Hollywood counterparts due to its geopolitical specificity. Similarly, if we try to read the film through a universalized feminist lens, it might not hold up; we might, for example, demand more attention to the actual women victims, rather than their families, or feel uncomfortable by the amount of screen time the film devotes to the Spider Killer and his violent acts in the making. But within the censorship constraints put on Iranian productions, Holy Spider fills in important gaps, and maybe that’s why we, as Western viewers, can afford to draw attention to another, more specific, kind of gap.
What’s more terrifying than the depictions of misogynistic violence is how the film manages to portray the feeling of absolute ease with which the killer could move in the world, knowing that big and important parts of Iranian society support him on his mission “to clear the streets from sin,” and to come face to face with the chilling realization that it’s impossible not to feel like a messiah when the merciless patriarchal system is built for your benefit. Holy Spider’s vow to realism culminates in a particularly powerful finale which warns of the dangers inherent in representations, recordings, and re-enactments of violence, effectively making a self-reflexive turn to end on just in time for the last cut. But can a black screen even hold out hope?
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.