Twenty-two years ago a man systematically murdered women on the streets of Mashhad, the second most populous city in Iran and home to the largest mosque in the world. The 16 women killed between 2000 and 2001 were largely sex workers and drug users, and the killer claimed he was doing God’s work by ridding the world of immorality. And so to some Islamic conservatives inside and out of Iran he was a heroic figure rather than a serial killer.
HOLY SPIDER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Holy Spider, a grungy Persian noir from Tehran-born and Copenhagen-based filmmaker Ali Abbasi, celebrates the humanity of that killer’s victims, and of Iranian women in general. It also shines a harsh and unforgiving light on a patriarchal society that refuses to do the same. The film arrives in theaters (October 28 in New York and November 4 in Los Angeles and elsewhere) as the young women of Iran continue to risk their lives to confront the violent misogyny of clerical rule in the forefront of the most trenchant civil rights protests since the Black Lives Matter movement.
Abbasi — who made the wonderfully odd 2018 Oscar-nominated troll movie Border — manages to simultaneously demonstrate the depth of disregard for women’s lives held by Iran’s power structure while also being a crisp, engrossing, and disturbing crime thriller. His primary embellishment to the story, which was also told by the great Iranian-Canadian journalist and human rights activist Maziar Bahari in his 2002 documentary And Along Came a Spider, is the creation of Rahimi, a female journalist who travels from Tehran to investigate the murders, which local police and media have treated largely with indifference. (The killer calls the local crime reporter after each killing and is generally cordial on the phone, unless the paper happens to call him a murderer instead of someone who is “waging a jihad against vice.”)
Played by Zar Amir-Ebrahimi — whose performance won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, an award that enraged Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance — Rahimi is brimming with a focused fury and sense of resolve forged in a fire of injustice that is at once intensely personal and profoundly societal. (The Iranian actor has lived in Paris in exile from her home country since 2008, after she became the target of a revenge porn scandal.)
Rahimi ends up in the grasp of the killer she is chasing, giving Holy Spider a familiar Silence of the Lambs vibe that it just can’t shake (though this is true of pretty much every serial killer movie released since 1991). But that the murderer — ingeniously played by Mehdi Bajestani, a onetime member of Iran’s celebrated absurdist performance group the Naqshineh Theatre — is the direct opposite of the charismatic and cinematic Hannibal Lecter popularized by that movie and others, helps to counterbalance this bit of sensationalism.
Bajestani’s version of the killer Saeed is schlubby and oafish, unable to handle the slightest disruption in the home he shares with his wife and two young children. Before he is able to surprise and overpower them, he is either outsmarted or laughed at by his victims. He is arrogant as he attempts to justify his actions at his trial, but he comes off as bland and intellectually shallow — a true face of evil’s banality.
The puttering of Saeed’s motorbike, the vehicle with which he seeks his prey and later drives their bodies to abandoned dirt lots, provides the inspiration for Danish composer Martin Dirkov’s soundtrack. Dirkov, who like most of the crew is a returnee from Abbasi’s Border, opts for groaning industrial noise instead of the exoticized wails that often accompany Western visions of the Middle East.
The music is just one of the many ways Abbasi shows respect for Iranian culture, even as he condemns the government and society in which it is currently contained. (The Iranian government has compared the film to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and threatened to punish anyone in Iran who had a part in making the film, which was shot in Amman, Jordan.)
But the director’s truest regard is for the women of Iran. You see it in care he puts into tiny details — Saeed’s first shown victim slipping her flats into a plastic bag to put on heels, and the quick prayer she gives at the mosque before embarking on a soul crushing (and ultimately life-claiming) night of sex work. You also see it in the righteous defiance of Amir-Ebrahimi’s justice-seeker.
We can glimpse much of the same kind of determination in social media posts of the Iranian women desperately trying to change their country for the better. Long may they thrive.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.