A real-life serial killer case gives Ali Abbasi the latitude to explore the role of women in contemporary Iranian society, in this powerful drama.
Abassi’s straightforward yet utterly engrossing procedural, which he co-wrote with Afshin Kamran Bahrami, opens during the middle of a terrifying period in the daily life of Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, whose name means ‘the place of martyrs’. It is there, over a couple of months in 2001 that 16 women were killed. The identity of the killer is no mystery. Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani) was a local builder, husband and father. He led a seemingly normal life. When his crimes were uncovered, one might expect a sense of shock to accompany the fear that his crimes inspired when they were being committed. Far from it. At the news that Hanaei was killing prostitutes for moral reasons, some sought to defend his actions.
Abassi and Bahrami tell much of the story from the perspective of largely fictionalised Tehran-based investigative journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi). But time is also given to the victims, imbuing in them a dignity that underpins the horror and injustice of what happens to them. In these moments, the film can be seen to highlight that the poor treatment of woman goes further, playing a role in everyday life for so many. (In these moments, the film reaches beyond Iran’s borders, encompassing a wider systemic problem of how women are treated around the world.) Rahimi herself is subject to the unwanted attentions, or prejudices, of men. That these themes are an integral part of a film that is as taut as any thriller is impressive. Holy Spider works as a classic investigative drama, but is essential as an indictment of misogyny in all its forms.