MOTELX 2022: The Ideological Web of 'Holy Spider'
This review is a translation of Pedro's original Portuguese-language review of Holy Spider on Fala Visual.
I saw Holy Spider in this year's MOTELX film exhibition in Lisbon and it immediately jumped to the top of my favorite films of 2022. At the beginning of September, I couldn't guess how relevant it would be just a few weeks later. Holy Spider has traces of horror – director Ali Abbasi is the man behind 2016’s Shelley – but it is, above all, a powerful thriller marked by its criticism of the most toxic aspects of Iranian society. Politics? Check. Religion? Check. Police? Check. Press? Check. Sexism? Check.
The film is set in the holy city of Mashhad, in Iran, which has been plagued by a series of murders that have a clear pattern of targets: women who prostitute themselves on the streets of the city. The extremist serial killer – his identity is not a mystery to the spectators – claims to be committing those crimes to clean the city in the name of Allah. The police seem to want very little to do with these crimes and even some citizens seem unbothered by the violence because, for them, the biggest crime is that of the "impure” women who "corrupt" men.
Abbasi sought to give virtually the same prominence to the serial killer – Saeed, impeccably played by Mehdi Bajestani – as his justice-seeking foil – the journalist Rahimi, in an impressive and well-nuanced interpretation by Zar Amir Ebrahimi – which allows the audience to hear from both sides. We learn how and why people think like that, even if one of the sides doesn't make much sense for many audience members. Unfortunately, some minds have been formatted through various formal or informal powers to think in a certain way, and they may just transmit these teachings and thoughts to future generations.
The first two acts are full of the investigative aspects and wrought tension that mark many genre classics (David Fincher's name comes to mind as one of the significant influences), but it will make fools out of those who think that the film is merely a hunt for a serial killer. From an early age, the film explores, children experience a hypocritical society wherein there are explicit rules for some and more flexible rules for others. A society wherein a woman is still seen as inferior, needing permission even to rent a hotel room, being seen as incomplete whenever she does not have domestic activities and a husband to care for.
Abbasi gives us several stabs – unlike the murderer who prefers to strangle – acutely and crudely, as Rahimi's intelligence and indignation become tangled. She is forced, time after time, to remain silent in the face of abuse from those who, in this time and space, are seen as superior. We feel similarly disheartened when we follow small fragments of the lives of those sex workers who often have to do their occupation to survive. They are victims twice over: victims of a society that abandoned them and victims of a community that still sees them as guilty.
In the third act, the film changes completely. It becomes clear that whole swaths of the community are on the side of the serial killer – forgive me, “vigilante,” by their standards. This group includes women. It includes children. After all, they can only follow the rules and limitations thought proper to the culture they are a part of. And that's why the final scene of Holy Spider – which at first may seem empty – is so impactful. Without spoiling, it reflects the bluntness of the whole film, which plays the difficult dual role of portraying and criticizing an entire culture trapped under the lashings of the past and present.
Technically, the movie is everything it should be. The black tones of the film are enhanced through beautiful cinematography, and they are accompanied by a dark and heavy sound composition. Even in an open environment, Abbasi's artistic choices convey to us a certain sense of claustrophobia that eerily represents what those women feel in their daily lives.
Holy Spider is a thriller filled with tension, violence and strong acting. But it goes well beyond that. The rawness with which it articulates its message will no doubt cause the ire of many. This is a movie with no fear – as the times require.