Ali Abbasi's Holy Spider caused a stir when it premiered at Cannes 2022, especially being nominated for the Palm d'Or and Zar Amir Ebrahimi winning Best Actress. But the story itself was the main reason the film caught the audiences' attention. Based on real events surrounding the serial killer Saeed Hanaei who murdered 16 women from 2000 to 2001 in Mashhad, Iran.
Journalist Arezoo Rahimi arrives in the holy city from Tehran to investigate the series of murders and teams up with fellow reporter Sharifi, who has been getting calls from the killer about where the bodies are left. Alongside the investigation, the murderer Hanaei goes about his business. Going to work, to pray, spending time with his family and going out looking for his next victims.
The ‘corrupt women' are identified as those who are out late at night alone, wearing make-up, colourful or brightly coloured scarves and usually wearing a shorter length coat, these women are the Spider Killer's prey. The fact that the authorities are aware of the killings but have made little progress, despite the women being picked up from the same place and their bodies dumped in locations given to a reporter over the phone each time, the police don't care. These women have been written off by society, the disgust at them is not hidden but out in the open by many people Rahimi speaks to. This is just one element of the story that's hard to battle with. The disregard for the women at the highest risk. There is one moment of sympathy from someone other than Rahimi, a local influential cleric that doesn't blame the women for their actions, understanding that they need the money and this was their last resort. But no sooner have these words spoken, he insinuates that Rahimi herself is corrupt. Always perceiving that women are corrupt feels to be the default in this city.
Despite us knowing exactly who the killer is and his way of working, the suspense is held throughout the film. Knowing or not knowing the outcome of the story, it doesn't matter. Waiting for a killer to be caught aside, there is tension in the air the minute Rahimi steps off the bus. She is an established outsider from the start and she makes no effort to hide it. Her driving force to catch the killer and seek justice for these women is where the main suspense is. Each interaction she has, you never know how she'll react. She provides the element of surprise in a story that some might know.
Following on from his 2018 film, Border, Holy Spider could be considered an odd choice for Abbassi. But as both feature a sadistic crime at the heart of the story, this feels more in his wheelhouse. Holy Spider isn't just a film for the true crime fans, there are deeper themes at work here.
Holy Spider is released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 20 January 2023 and will stream exclusively on MUBI from 10 March 2023