Over the last few months, protestors in Iran have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the regime’s strict morality laws, which have been used to justify state violence against women and limit their freedoms in Iranian society. Set in Iran in 2001, true crime thriller Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi) strikes an uncomfortable resonance today.
The film tells the story of a female journalist investigating the ‘spider killer’, who is revealed to be a serial murderer of prostitutes in the holy city of Mashhad. The killer, a religious family man named Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) aims to ‘purify’ the streets from sin. Saeed serves as a vessel through which writer-director Ali Abbasi makes his commentary on how religion can be used to justify violence against women. His method of killing – strangling his victims with their headscarf – is a chilling metaphor for state control of the way women dress.
Meanwhile, the journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is the film’s symbol of resistance to societal misogyny. Through her, we learn of the obstacles that Iranian women face in their day-to-day lives. Ebrahimi, herself exiled from Iran having being sentenced to prison after intimate footage of her was leaked, deservedly won the Best Actress award for this role at Cannes this year.
The film dedicates more time to showcasing the actions of the spider killer and Rahimi, with little information given about the lives of female prostitutes in Iran. While the film shows how these women are victims of misogynistic brutality in their interaction with the Spider Killer, it could have explored further how these women came to be in their predicament.
It may be an exaggeration to describe Saeed and Rahimi as protagonists, as other than vague references to their past, little information is given about them. This makes sense for their characters; in a sense, their individual traits and motivations don’t matter so much. Rather, it is the social and hyper-religious ideas that shape their characters’ narratives that the film focuses on.
Those buying a ticket for Holy Spider should know it certainly doesn’t protect the viewer from the tragic impact of these ideas. Graphic depictions of sexual assault and murder are shown from the start of the film which, though compelling, are by no means comfortable. It’s a fast-paced thriller which shows the different ways attitudes to women play out in different arenas, from the courts to the clerics, from the police to the wider population, and from the streets of Mashhad to houses behind closed doors.
With this comprehensive take on Iranian society, in part produced and acted by severalIranians in exile, it’s not surprising that the film has been rebuked by the Iranian government. Efforts to film Holy Spider in Iran were abandoned early in the project, with production ultimately taking place in Jordan. It’s the sharp and critical stance that the film takes that makes it both controversial in Iran, and necessary for any audience curious about the way dangerous ideas can be made real through violence.
Written by Joe Marshall