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66th BFI London Film Festival: Holy Spider

Last time I went to see an Ali Abbasi movie it was Valentine’s Day and I was presented with a special free gift bag including a package of dried locusts I was invited to snack on throughout the film. Suffice to say, that set the tone for the confusing, unwelcome, and deeply unpleasant experience of watching the horrendously misjudged infant sex slavery romantic fantasy Border. Like that film, Abbasi’s follow up comes highly recommended, though takes a much more conservative swing at subject matter little less distressing and significantly more credible.

Mischaracterized in some areas as a thriller, Holy Spider is a procedural drama and character study about a true-life serial killer who embarked upon a jihad against the sex workers of the city of Masshad, luring them to his home with promise of payment before murdering them. The killer, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), is the focus of his character study, exploring the sexual insecurity and culturally supported misogyny that motivated his violent crimes, but Abbasi splits his perspective on events between the killer and Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a fictional journalist whose high-risk investigations help secure the murderer’s arrest.

Ebrahimi won the Best Actress Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her Holy Spider performance in what Iran’s enraged Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance called “an insulting and politically motivated move”. Loathe as I am to agree with them, Ebrahimi’s performance is good, but considering the field, it was an odd choice. Ebrahimi’s character is one-dimensional, not particularly nuanced or complex and not provided with many especial challenges or intense moments. Ebrahimi was originally the casting director and stepped in to play the role herself at the last minute, so her creditable performance is remarkable if only for that reason, as well as its bravery as a political act. There can be no doubt of Holy Spider vexing all the right people for the right reasons, it’s an extremely bleak and dispiriting portrait of the far-reaching roots and poisonous influence of misogyny in Iranian culture, something attendees of the London Film Festival were given daily reminders of by the heroic protesters on the streets outside.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as Rahimi in Holy Spider

Holy Spider‘s charged motives are what inform its best moments, especially a final scene that recalls nothing so much as the most incendiary work of Michael Haneke. The film’s first half is given over to Rahimi’s slow-moving investigation and the nocturnal activities of Saeed, of which we get a little too much for some tastes. Pending any cuts, the film will most certainly receive an NC-17 or 18 rating when distributed, though due to the questionable priorities of the MPAA and BBFC, it will be for one scene of oral sex more graphic than anything we saw in Blonde, than for any of the more upsetting onscreen violence. The second half is where Holy Spider starts to find its purpose with an uneven but still deeply incensing depiction of the public perception of Saeed during his trial, with many feeling his religiously motivated killings were justified. Even his wife is more upset he would risk having to abandon his children by going to jail than to learn that her own husband murdered sixteen people.

As a slightly more credible version of Seven‘s Jon Doe, Saeed remains convinced his actions were justified and more than seeing himself as a martyr, he is confident the public will share his perspective and demand his freedom while Rahimi fears he may be proven right. Saeed’s conviction is fueled equally by the reality that many share his loathing of sex workers, and by outright delusions, which Holy Spider actualizes as hallucinations. We hear little of the public’s perception on the crimes and the perspective sticks largely to those in Saeed and Rahimi’s immediate circles, an in Saeed’s case these are tarnished by his delusions, so we’re left uneasy and unconvinced by the extent of the Holy Spider‘s moral outrage. Its approach feels too heavily fictionalized to carry much weight and it never compels as a thriller would, to do so would’ve been poor taste anyway.

Netflix’s Dahmer series has provoked much discussion on the ethics of portraying real-life murder victims for the sake of holding a mirror up to their killers, and similar discussions could be held around this film. Abbasi does make an effort to humanize the victims, and the film starts off strong by following one of them (Alice Rahimi) as she goes about her grim night shift servicing the men of Masshad. However, in its degraded portrayal of these women and its fictionalization of a role of a journalist it can place her at the film’s center instead, it feels increasingly as if the film is providing tacit endorsement of the delineation between “respectable” women and the sex workers the killer targeted, and it extracts dramatic tension out of playing with the distinction. There is no distinction, and it feels gross and unconstructive to behave as if there were.

Perhaps that’s the issue with Holy Spider, for all its forcefulness, it lacks direction or style. It’s sort of journalistic and procedural, it’s a bit thriller-like and it’s somewhat of a character study but is also trying to project that character onto Iranian society as a whole. It’s commendable, in its ambition and aspiration, and it does manage to deliver a couple of great sequences, but it divides its efforts between the subjective and the objective in a way that only the very best films can pull off.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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