Film Review: Holy Spider

By Matthew Moorcroft

Strong Recommendation

  • Directed by Ali Abbasi
  • Starring Mehdi Bajestani, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad
  • Not Rated

It’s hard for me to even properly convey words to describe Holy Spider, as the grim subject matter and heavy material on display here means that a normal review process almost seems insulting to this kind of film. We get a lot of true crime material over the years, especially these days as the Netflix algorithm demands more and more of it, but whether it be by the tropes standard with it at this point or just desensitization, Holy Spider hits harder in a way that others just usually don’t.

And that could mainly be due to it’s focus, which is the 2000-2001 so called “Spider Killings” in Iran, which were targeted at sex workers and were played out by a man who believed he was acting out God’s vengeance against “the unclean”. But while his acts are horrific, what that situation showed, and what Holy Spider ultimately is about, is that the misogyny present in Iranian society is so prevalent and so widespread that it led to more women dying then not. The police stood there and took pictures with the killer, the government only executed him because of an election cycle, and the whole process was surrounded by people who genuinely believed he did nothing wrong.

And it shies away from very little. Holy Spider is as dark as dark can get, and it’s hard not to be exhausted by the end of it’s runtime with simply just how dark and depressing the whole affair is by the end of it. This is obviously on purpose, and Ali Abbasi, a Danish-Iranian filmmaker best known for his excellent work on the bizarre yet compelling fantasy film Border, taps into his crime roots from that film and delivers the closest thing to a straight up recreation of those events without really dipping into straight documentary territory. It almost at times feels purposefully leering, opening an eye into a dark underbelly that is usually left unsaid, unturned.

The great meta element in all of this though turns out to be our lead actress, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who plays a fictional journalist who was fired from a sex scandal at her prior workplace despite never actually having the scandal in the first place. It was just assumed that she did. In a purposeful reflection of real life, Ebrahimi herself was famously caught in a sex scandal in 2006 where it was believed she was the one in a widely publicized sex tape despite Ebrahimi repeatedly insisting it wasn’t her. This focus gives Abbasi’s film less of a focus about the actual process of the murders – although like most true crime fare that’s here too – and instead hones in on the extremism and the sexism that played a part in everything.

Unsurprising as well, Ebrahimi is simply phenomenal in this, carrying much of the film by herself and having to put herself into some very difficult positions here to make this work. Equally as stellar as her though is the wonderfully creepy Mehdi Bajestani, who just nails Saeed Hanaei’s fanaticism and sheer lack of empathy for the people he has murdered. Bajestani is taking a big risk being in the film as mentioned by Abbasi, whose stage career could be threatened by even agreeing to star in the film. Bajestani clearly puts his all in this though, clearly seeing it as a chance of highlighting the truth over anything else.

It’s hard to say if Holy Spider ends up actually making a dent – it’s acclaim from Cannes means it’s assured at least an Oscar nomination come awards season – but as it stands, it’s a suitably grim, important picture that demands your fullest attention. One doesn’t really “enjoy it” per say, not with this subject matter, but as it comes to these kinds of films, this is one of the stronger ones to come out this year on a sheer technical and acting level.

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