Scenes from the sex trade in the holy city of Mashhad, Iran: A bruised-and-battered-looking woman gets dressed for her nighttime job. There’s some nasty pillow talk during intercourse with a wealthy saffron-exporter customer. The woman cleans up, smokes some crack, then gets short-changed for a quickie blow job. But then the next trick strangles her with her own head scarf, after which he dumps her body on a nearby hillside and rides away on his motorbike.
Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider has some rough edges. Reportedly a few audience members at Cannes walked out on its depictions of sexual violence. But director/co-screenwriter Abbasi is not trying for cheap thrills with his inspired-by-true-events account of a crazed serial killer and the female journalist who tracks him down. The real story is about how reporter Arezoo Rahimi (played by veteran Iranian actor Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) doggedly investigates the killings committed by laborer Saeed Azimi (Mehdi Bajestani, in a frighteningly realistic performance), while Iranian authorities are seemingly reluctant to touch the case.
The reasons the officials balk at pursuing the “Holy Spider” murderer are bound up together with the reasons why police inspector Rostami (Sina Parvaneh) browbeats reporter Rahimi when she dares to question him about why no one seems interested in solving the crimes—all of which occur near Mashhad’s Imam Reza Shrine. Why is this nosy woman outsider making trouble about the murders (10 of them, as the story unfolds) of “corrupt women” in the first place? “They’re all the same, sick junkies,” says the irritated cop to this insistent female. “Know your place, miss.”
As we observe Saeed on his killing spree and later domiciled with his family at home, we take note that he’s a war veteran with related psychological problems involving “unclean” prostitutes and their sacrilegious business. His solution is to take the sinners somewhere and strangle them, with much heavy breathing.
The similarity between Saeed’s “jihad against vice” and the 2021 American case of the Georgia man who shot women in massage parlors in order to remedy his bothersome sex addiction is obvious. In a society in which so-called “morality police” enforce strict behavior and women are considered second-class citizens to be shrouded in a chador, mixed-up Saeed feels justified in violently “taking care of” the street walkers who torment him. To him, they deserve to be eliminated.
The suspense factor of the nervous screenplay—written by Abbasi and Afshin Kamran Bahrami—is limited to a single question: Will Saeed keep killing or will he slip up? **SPOILER ALERT: STOP READING HERE IF YOU WANT THE DENOUEMENT TO BE A SURPRISE **
The mad assassin’s comeuppance takes a further sinister turn in the film’s third quarter, when his arrest prompts his family, friends and much of the city’s population (the movie, a Danish-German-Swedish-French co-production, was filmed in Jordan) to loudly demand that he be acquitted of murder charges on the grounds he was “cleansing society” with his misogynistic mayhem. It’s also informative to realize that Iran’s current real-life female resistance movement is taking place just a few months after Abbasi’s film was released.
Actor Bajestani’s convincingly repugnant performance as the Holy Spider is enough to cause some Western audiences to scratch their heads in wonder. Is Saeed’s religious vigilantism symptomatic of contemporary Iranian society? Or just a melodramatic device to show us that anyone who claims he is proud to have killed 10 women for the crime of selling their bodies would believe that he was only doing his duty?
The heroine of the piece, Ms. Rahimi, is a true action figure. Disrespected by almost every male character in the cast, she’s unafraid to go out undercover in heavy makeup, stalking the killer and taking a beating when the going gets tough. Actor Ebrahimi gives her character an extra supply of righteous indignation, and Holy Spider uses her vehemence wisely. It’s sometimes hard to watch, but then, justice often is.