Political Film Review #664


During the year 2000, bad news came from the holy city of Mashhad, Iran. Women were being murdered, and the local police appeared unable to stop the continuing slaughter. Accordingly, in 2001 journalist Rahimi (played by Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) goes from Iran to Mashhad to investigate (though the film was made in Jordan). When she tries to check into a hotel, the management at first refuses to honor her reservation because she is a single woman, but she is finally allowed to stay after she presents her credentials as a journalist. In the morning she goes to see Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), the local journalist who has been covering the story; indeed, the Spider Killer has been phoning him each time after a killing to provide the location of the body. Sharifi in turn escorts her about town. In due course she meets the local police, who are not doing the obvious—investigating with DNA or having someone pose as a prostitute to entrap the murderer. They will not even share case files. She then decides to interview a prostitute and some persons who have observed how the murderer picks up his victims. Meanwhile, more murders continue. On one occasion she goes to the scene of a crime and discovers that the prostitute she has previously interviewed is the latest victim. Clearly, she realizes that the killings will continue unabated because police are delighted that victims are prostitutes, so the murderer is doing them a favor.  Witnesses fear talking to the police because they might be arrested for anything that would give joy to the police. One member of the police force even tries to seduce her. Sixteen women have died thus far, and a seventeenth woman is expected to be found any day.

Meanwhile, Holy Spider provides a view of Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani) the Spider Killer, a middle-aged man who evidently has an unresolved PTSD problem as a survivor of the Iran―Iraq War. Filmviewers see him attract prostitutes, enticing them with cash to ride on his motorcycle to his home, where he operates a standard procedure of death by strangulation followed by dropping off the body in a dark location in the middle of the night. His extended family, including his wife, suspects there is something wrong with him but do not realize that he is the Spider Killer.

The most gripping scenes begin when Rahimi decides to pretend to be a prostitute, armed with a knife, while Sharifi is prepared to follow her to the murder site. After she realizes that he is indeed the Spider Killer, she pulls out her knife to demand to leave. An altercation ensues, and she fortunately is able to depart. The next day he is arrested. During the ensuing trial, his attorney tries to claim that he is insane and therefore not responsible for the crimes. But instead he boasts that he is acting on behalf of Allah and doing the town a favor. He even gains widespread support from the community, including his son, as the town’s hero, thereby revealing the town’s political culture.

The outcome of the trial then becomes the final suspense in a film directed by Ali Abbasi that has been relentless in scene after scene. Filmviewers will discover out her mood when she takes a bus back to Tehran at the end of the film.

The Political Film Society has nominated Holy Spider as best film on human rights of 2022 and, due to the way in which the truth is revealed, as best film exposé of 2022. Nevertheless, both the director and the lead actress have received death threats for their “obscenity” and “blasphemy” from official sources inside Iran.  MH  

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