Holy Spider (2022)
Directed by Ali Abbasi
Screenplay by Abbasi & Afshin Kamran Bahrami
Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi & Mehdi Bajestani
Crime / Drama / Thriller
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
Ali Abbasi has brought consistently interesting projects to the screen since his feature debut Shelley in 2016, followed by the spectacular Border in 2018. Now, he’s delivered Holy Spider, one of 2022’s most stunning and powerful feature films based on a horrific story of serial murder that happened in Iran. This story follows a journalist, Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), who heads to the holy city of Mashhad, Iran to investigate a serial killer targeting sex workers. At the same time, Saaed (Mehdi Bajestani), a labourer and Iran-Iraq War veteran, is out stalking prey in the night, taking the lives of vulnerable, drug-addicted women. And it isn’t long before Rahimi collides with Saaed.
Holy Spider is set in Iran, and based on the actual murders of Saeed Hanaei, yet it remains a universal story about how patriarchal societies treat women, especially our most vulnerable ones. Abbasi explores societal misogyny, but it’s a mistake to believe he’s only worried about Iran’s attitudes towards women. Nearly every element of the story in Holy Spider—apart from a few glimpse of Mashhad’s centre city where the Imam Reza shrine is located and some mention of Iranian customs—can be applied to Western countries, from the general sociopolitical climate for women to the post-war blues and working class troubles Saaed experiences; this may be what makes some viewers more uncomfortable than the violence depicted, that the distance between what’s depicted as happening in the East and where we believe we live in the West is negligible when it comes to violence against women.
Abbasi depicts the misogyny and sexism prevalent in Iranian society but also shows how it’s all-too universal. When we first meet Rahimi, she mentions making a report of sexual harassment at her previous job when her editor-in-chief made her uncomfortable, but she was fired and then the story became that she and the EIC were romantically involved rather than her being harassed in the workplace. We also see the police’s opinion of sex workers and drug addicts, as one cop says all the victims are “alike—addicted to drugs and prostitution.” The same cop later gets threatening with Rahimi in her hotel room after she agrees to have a cigarette with him and he takes this as a potential suggestion for something more sexual. And we further see the internalised misogyny of some women after Saaed is caught, when Saaed’s wife tells their son: “Your dad has sent some of these depraved women in the streets to Hell.” She later tells her son that the dead sex workers “got what they deserved.”
All those moments of misogyny and sexism are not unique to Iran, rather Abbasi works to make sure they come off as universal rather than being tied too directly solely to Iranian culture. Even Saeed’s motives, though religious in nature, are the same as many other serial killers from plenty of Christian countries. He openly states at one point: “I‘m cleaning up the streets for Imam Reza.” He sees sex workers as unclean, hoping to literally clean them off the streets. This is the same motive as American serial killers like Gary Ridgway, The Green River Killer, who was convicted on 49 counts of murder against sex workers in the state of Washington in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s also similar to the original modern serial killer, Jack the Ripper, who sought to sweep the streets of sex workers in Victorian England.
One of the biggest differences between Iran and countries in the West on the surface of Holy Spider is how Saaed was treated like a hero by conservative newspapers and many people in Mashhad and around Iran after his arrest. We see people laughing in court when Saeed speaks about “whores in the street” and they react to him like a late night host rather than an accused serial killer. Even people at the local corner store tell Saeed’s son that they “owe” his father for what he did.
Underneath the surface, Saaed’s treatment in Iranian pop culture is not so different from the way American conservatives use kid gloves with white supremacists and mass shooters. There’s not much of a difference between Iran and America in this regard. For instance, Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who crossed state lines to murder two people, is a great example of conservatives/Republicans genuinely standing behind a murderous piece of shit. But even when the cons/Repubs aren’t openly supporting awful people, their words and actions support them. We can even look at the general air of misogyny in America, evidenced by Donald Trump being voted in as POTUS even after his ‘grab them by the pussy’ and ‘you’ve got to treat women like shit’ remarks because Americans do not care about how women feel or what they think. Again, how is Holy Spider depicting Iran specifically outside of its setting? Saeed could just as well have been killing people in Ohio as Mashhad. It’s fantasy to believe otherwise.
In Western countries, we like to kid ourselves and say that Iran, or other places similar to it, is so much worse to women than us. Racists in particular love to point to places such as Iran, or anywhere else populated with a lot of Muslims, when they need to put women (or LGBTQ2S+ people) in their places by saying ‘Look at how they treat women and queer people, you should be glad to live in America (etc).’ Meanwhile, America, Canada, and other Western countries are still busy debating women’s rights, or stripping them away.
While Holy Spider focuses on a specific serial killer case, one that actually played out in Iran, it’s not a film solely about Iranian society or the women in Iran, it’s a film about societies that use up their women and spit them out like chewed food to be discarded or digested. Abbasi himself has stated that this film isn’t about Iran, it’s actually about a “serial killer society” itself, and that society is a global one. The film is set in Iran, but outside the scenes in the Imam Reza shrine, this story could’ve been transposed to any other city across the world that’s still dominated by religious thought and values (and there are so, so many of them, in the East and the West). Even the final moments where Rahimi watches a video of Saeed’s son saying someone else like his father will do the same things if cops don’t ‘clean up’ the streets, then the boy demonstrates a how-to of his dad’s murderous methods on his own little sister. This is the generational transmission of misogyny/patriarchy passing from fathers to sons all across the world.
Abbasi never dives into any specifics about the culture in Iran, apart from visually, which keeps the plot and story largely universal, and this strips away any kind of cultural prejudice from Holy Spider that might’ve been there under the eye of another director. It’s strangely reminiscent of a scene in an episode from Season 12 of the comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia titled “The Gang Goes to a Water Park”: one of the characters is trying to tell a young girl about how, if she lived somewhere other than America, her cunning and intelligence would be appreciated, but then he struggles to think of a country that “cherishes their women.”
White people in the West can continue to look down their noses at countries in the East that they believe we’re morally superior to, however, the death toll of women murdered by men year after year in our own nations should always give us pause and remind us women have no sanctuary; they merely have different degrees/forms of misogyny from which to choose. Holy Spider is about serial killers as one of the symptoms of misogynistic societies across the world, and the West is forever the lead producer of their ilk, which is why there are only a couple films out there about Saeed Hanaei and countless films about the 3,000+ serial killers throughout American history.