It’s hard to watch the brutalization of women on screen, especially when you know it’s a re-enactment of a true crime. But it’s even harder – rightly, rightly – if you’ve been pointed out the way this woman’s lipstick is smeared on her cracked lips, if you’ve seen the old bruises that stain the body of this woman under her chador, or if you’ve watched she neatly packs her flats into a crumpled plastic bag as she steps to heels in a dingy bathroom. Saeed Hanaei, the real-life serial killer reimagined in Ali Abbasi’s tense and compelling procedural, believed that God was behind his grand mission to rid his city of prostitutes. But in “Holy Spider,” the devil is in those devastating details.
Hanaei, here portrayed with brave understatement by the affable Iranian actor Mehdi Bajestani, was a builder, a family man, a resident of Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad (a name meaning “the place of martyrs”) ), a devout Shia Muslim and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. He was also – no spoiler, because it’s not the kind of film in which the identity of the killer is a subject of suspense – a strangler who violently murdered 16 women in just a few months during a killing spree that , as the film begins, it is already more than halfway through.
Abbasi, who co-writes and directs here in a surprisingly simple genre register given the weirdness of her troll love story “Border” and paranoid pregnancy horror “Shelley,” follows the lead first. of one of Saeed’s victims on the last night of his life. It’s a statement of intent, showing a commendable instinct to humanize and dimension the victims and their families, who are poignantly portrayed despite their short screen time.
Somayeh (Alice Rahimi) exhausted dresses her battered body, kisses her sleeping child, and steps outside to stand in her usual place. She takes care of a few customers – another heartbreaking moment sees her in the bathroom of a wealthy married saffron merchant stealing a dab of his wife’s expensive lotion – before going on drugs to get ready for the coming night. She is therefore dazed when Saeed picks her up on his motorbike, but not so dazed that she suddenly senses imminent danger in the stairwell of his apartment building and tries to run away. Saeed overpowers her and strangles her with his own scarf right there on the concrete steps, then dumps her body on a nearby hill. As Martin Dirkov’s excellent grungy-electro score builds to an almost Vangelis-like crescendo, the camera soars into the night sky to watch Mashhad (actually Amman, Jordan; for obvious reasons, the filmmakers don’t weren’t allowed to shoot in Iran) and finds a shimmering cityscape of seedy, blackish menace.
At home, Saeed is a doting father to his pretty baby girl and teenage son Ali (Mesbah Taleb) and a respectful and almost gentle husband to his pretty wife Fatima (Foruzan Jamshidnejad). His family has no idea what he does in their own house on the nights they visit Fatima’s parents. And maybe they wouldn’t have found out if it hadn’t been for the dogged investigations of Tehran-based journalist Rahimi (a largely fictional composite character played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi). Despite being gender-blocked at every turn, Rahimi, who has come to Mashhad to report on the murders, teams up with local reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) to uncover the identity of the killer.
Set in DP Nadim Carlsen’s dark and sleek pocket widescreen, cut to a rhythmic, thriller pace by editors Hayedeh Safiyari and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, it’s nonetheless a little disappointing that this part of the narrative walks to a beat. also familiar: the brave reporter who does the detective work that a corrupt and apathetic police force won’t. But before a final act dealing with the fascinating social fallout once Said’s crimes become known and he becomes, in some circles, including his own home, a hero of a virtuous moral crusade, Abbasi’s film turns approximates this established pattern.
Even though grimy, scuffed realism is the dominant style, the filmmaker can’t resist a few flourishes of flashier serial killer movies: a shot of Saeed smiling, lit from below that makes him momentarily demonic; a glimpse of him sniffing the chilling corpse of one of his victims suggesting a sexual component to his compulsion that isn’t necessarily confirmed elsewhere; a brief case of mental breakdown where he imagines the dead sex worker in his living room laughing at him. These heightened elements slightly undermined Bajestani’s superb performance and generally compelling portrayal of Said’s banality, cowardice, pettiness despite the grandeur of his alleged divine crusade.
The great terror (and later, great admiration) that the “Spider Killer” inspired came not from the man, but from an overall environment of female oppression, which is cleverly depicted in a few well-judged scenes that exist. apart from the architecture of the cat and mouse thriller. In one, Rahimi is forced to fend off the advances of a police captain (Sina Parvaneh). Earlier, she is treated with flippant disdain by her hotel receptionist. When the boy Ali is interviewed in the film’s terrifyingly banal epilogue, it shows how misogyny is a dimension of Iranian society. But pervasive and extreme as it is there, this ecosystem of learned and encouraged behaviors passed down proudly from father (and sometimes mother) to son, is far from specific to this city, or this country, or the extremist edge of this one. Faith.
“Every man will encounter what he wishes to avoid,” reads the film’s ominous epigram, giving hope that some degree of punitive justice is in store at some point for all the world’s villains. But every woman in this repressive patriarchal society, and many of us living under much more liberal regimes, probably encounter what we wish to avoid more or less every day.