In this review, we will be talking about the 2022 production Holy Spider, which has been very popular in the past months. Set in the holy city of Iran, Mashhad, the film was directed by Ali Abbasi, whom we know best from the 2018 film Border. Of course, we would like to add that Holy Spider was shot outside of Iran, in Jordan to be precise, without the support of Iranian government due to its subject and explicit scenes. Blending real events with fiction, the screenplay was written by Ali Abbasi and Afshin Kamran Bahrami. In the film, Zar Amir-Ebrahimi plays a very ambitious journalist, and the events are mostly told through her. Rahimi, who came to investigate the murders that took place in this holy city, encounters the terrible inner face of Mashhad, and is exposed to discrimination and harassment on her way to find the murderer. The murderer (Saeed played by Mehdi Bajestani), who mostly kills prostitutes by alluring them into his web, is a family man who claims to have committed these murders to “cleanse” the holy city. Zar Amir-Ebrahimi received the Best Actress award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, although the film, based on Saeed Hanaei, who killed 16 prostitutes between the years of 2000-2001 after his wife was mistaken for a prostitute, had many nominations itself. Ali Abbasi was also nominated for Palme d’Or at this festival.
Saeed Hanaei, the main subject of the film, was a worker and was involved in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. However, he wasn’t able to reach to the level of being a martyr and thus he believes that he should do something to get God’s praise. He wants to prove that he is a valuable servant of God. Of course, these levels of dedication to the idea of God can be read as survivor’s guilt. Because every time Saeed talks to a fellow veteran friend of his, we see that he always questions why he survived the war. So, he starts to believe that if he cleans this holy city for God, he might be accepted despite all his insufficiencies. Holy Spider is not a whodunnit story, as we learn quite quickly who the murderer is. In fact, the very interesting point about the film is that we are alone with the murderer and have the chance to examine the events from his “perspective”. We witness his family and business life, share the time he spends with his loved ones, and see the motivation and delusion behind all his actions. Stories of an ambitious journalist or a courageous policeman catching the bad guy abound in the history of cinema, of course, but this kind of a story where we get to have a connection with the murderer is rare.
Empathizing with a Murderer
The pace of the film accelerates when the journalist and Saeed are left alone. The audience automatically think that this tempo will calm down and the film will end once the killer is caught, but they have never been so wrong. After Saeed is caught, the film opens a completely different door and shows the backyard of Iran. This garden, in which the diplomatic crisis plays a leading role, and where we can see the extent of bribery and nepotism within the state, is almost terrifying. Especially the references that Saeed’s son Ali (Mesbah Taleb), whom we can call an adolescent, will complete the work that his father left unfinished, is creepy. It feels like we are watching a documentary, and this strengthens the feeling that these dialogues took place in real life. Also, it makes the scenes so memorable for us and we would not be so impressed with these scenes if we were watching a completely fictional film. Especially as female viewers, even if we are watching Holy Spider in a relatively different geography, we are literally terrified. Especially when Ali explains how his father killed women in practice through his sister, maybe we shudder more than while we were watching real murders. This animation, shown through children, reminds us how men and women, who were children in the same way at the time, turn into something completely different as they get older, and that every man who is now a murderer was perhaps a harmless child in his time, and how terrible the outer mechanisms or mental disorders that turn people into monsters are.
In terms of acting, I believe enough credit should be especially given to Mehdi Bajestani. He may not have received an award like his female counterpart at the well-known festivals, but even accepting to play such a role is an incredibly brave act. Bajestani fulfilled the requirements of his role quite successfully. It’s hard to understand how a man who can be so affectionate and calm towards his family —except for a few outbursts— could take all his anger out on women who have already taken their toll. This man, who can commit terrible crimes against these women he finds on the streets and brings home, can take on the role of a father to his family in the same house. However, this duality and division in his life and mind does not last long, of course. Because this degree of internal decay spreads its smell to the outside over time. Saeed’s end is as brutal as his own methods. But again, strangely enough, we look at Saeed’s face with more difficulty compared to the twitching and gasping faces of dying women. Because throughout the film, this man, whose terrible methods, pains, longings, disappointments and family life, no matter how sickly his mentality may be, becomes more and more familiar to us. We only see the murdered women for a few minutes. During this time, it is very difficult to establish a real closeness with them. This film, which inevitably makes us empathize with the murderer, pushes us to make a correct judgment about this man who tries to play the role of God.
Being a Woman: Living is not an Act of Surviving
Let’s move on to what prompted director Abbasi to shoot this film. At the beginning of the 2000s, when the events were really happening, Abbasi was still a student and watched a documentary about Saeed. About the documentary and the events, Abbasi says: “In a really strange way, I felt sympathy for the guy, really against my own will. I think there was a psychotic element to the pleasure-seeking aspect of his murders, the twisted sexuality and whatnot, but there was also this strange innocence about him. It was more about how a society creates a serial killer” (source). These words of course confirm the existence of our sense of sympathy for the murderer, albeit by mistake, in the film. Of course, not everyone is very happy with the way Abbasi reflects the events and the existence of the idea that the murderer is innocent to some extent. Some people do not want to feel this sympathy, because it is very disturbing. However, it is difficult to say that people like Saeed were made this way only by the society, as Abbasi said. Here, it is necessary to talk about the individual predisposition of that person to become this way – maybe because of his brain chemistry, maybe because of the violence he experienced as a child – and then the external events that triggered this predisposition. In addition, in real life, the murderer is said to have had a rather abusive relationship with his mother, which is not surprising (source).
In addition to all this anti-women theme – which creates a social perspective – the film also presents how weak human beings can be -which shows a smaller component of the society-. The film shows that a person who has never been able to achieve anything he wanted throughout his life -even being a martyr (!) for God-, who sees himself as a disappointment, can accept fame no matter how he manages to achieve it. In this way, we see how complex human psychology actually is. Nevertheless, it can be hard to swallow from time to time that there are many transitions from the general to the specific, from the individual to the society, and vice versa. All of the events that are presented by the film have echoes of different dimensions to the audience at the same time. This provides lots of things to digest, and the audience might easily lose focus. It is sometimes difficult to focus on what the main issue is. Therefore, the film makes you feel that it couldn’t reach its full potential.
The character of Saeed’s wife, Fatima, is a very interesting character and surprises the audience. Despite all the madness around her and her husband’s new “fans”, she can sometimes push this euphoria aside and see the events with their sad reality. She is aware that they are going after a wholly made-up persona of Saeed and she will be left alone with her son soon when this whole flame is extinguished. If we go back to the end of the film again, we remember when Saeed’s acquaintances suddenly appear in the prison cell. One thinks that he is hallucinating and assumes that the sense of self grandiose breaks his psychology to this extent. Perhaps the film would have been more impressive if the film had actually proceeded this way – perhaps in contrast to what actually happened, we don’t know – and if he was executed while he was floating in his own delusions. Still, it is inevitable that Holy Spider is a film that has accomplished a lot as it is. On a last note, it should be underlined that the soundtrack of the film is also very successful, and it makes people shudder. With the combination of good acting and an uncanny music score, it is impossible for the audience to leave the cinema with a peace of mind.