Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 27th, 2022
Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi, 2022) 2 out of 4 stars.
“Every man shall meet what he wishes to avoid.” So begins Holy Spider with this epigraph from Imam Ali. The same sentiment could be expressed about director Ali Abbasi, himself, who takes a solid central premise and somehow crafts it into the opposite of what he seems to want. Despite a strong performance from lead actress Zar Amir-Ebrahimi (White Paradise) and excellent technical elements, the movie never quite rises above the level of exploitative crime drama. What thesis it has, though powerful, is lost in the obviousness of it all.
Someone is murdering prostitutes in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad. If your first reaction to this is to wonder at the fact that the Islamic Republic has prostitutes at all, join the club. Then again, it is “the world’s oldest profession” and desperate people exist everywhere. Still, it comes as a shock to this viewer to see hijab-wearing women walking the street and offering their bodies, especially given current events. This tension will be at the center of the story’s conflict.
The man preying on these women, known locally as the Spider Killer, looks to rid the nation of the scourge of sin (as he sees it). The mystery lies not in who he is, for we see him early on—his name is Saeed, and he is a husband and father of two—but rather on whether anything meaningful will be done to him should he be caught. There’s also the question of whether he is not just doing a job the police would themselves love to do. Women, be they sex workers or anyone else, are subordinate to men’s wishes, after all.
Saeed is played by Mehdi Bajestani, who brings a gruff fanaticism to the part but not much else. Far more interesting is Amir-Ebrahimi’s Rahimi, a journalist who was fired from her job in Tehran for complaining about sexual harassment by her boss and now must freelance in this provincial backwater. She’s helped by a friend, fellow journalist Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), who acts as both guide and protector, since local law enforcement does not appreciate a woman poking into its affairs. Together, the two muckrakers try to first track down Saeed and then get him prosecuted.
Hold Spider really wants to be a worthy exploration of the place of women in Iran. Unfortunately, it is far too much a movie that revels in the grisly details of the murders, showing us the women in close-up as Saeed strangles them. Abbasi—so pitch perfect in his amazing 2018 effort, Border—also spends far too much screen time showing us the daily life of his killer, doing unto the victims what he claims Iran also does: see them as one-dimensional and expendable. We barely get to know any of those dispatched, instead finding ourselves in scene after scene with Saeed and his family.
In the end, it is a cinematic misfire, albeit one that fascinates in fits and starts. Amir-Ebrahimi holds our attention in every sequence she appears, and the nighttime cinematography impresses. Those parts aren’t enough to overcome the shortcomings of the script, however. This spider needs more interconnective web to hold its narrative together.