Iranian film "Holy Spider"
Killing women in the name of Allah

Ali Abbasi’s film "Holy Spider" tells the true story of a serial killer in the Iranian pilgrimage city of Mashhad. The fact that it gets bogged down at the end does not make it any less interesting. By Andreas Kilb

Holy Spider opens with a dialogue that could serve as a commentary on the current mass protests in Iran. It takes place between Arezoo, a reporter, and a hotel employee: “Please cover your hair” – “It’s got nothing to do with you” – “But the morality police…” – “Mind your own business.”

Indeed, Mahsa Amini — the Iranian Kurdish woman whose death at the hands of the morality police sparked the protests in September — was accused of not being properly covered up. Nevertheless, it would be an exaggeration to claim that the film, released the summer before, has a prophetic quality. In Iran, the injustice which the protest movement is targeting is on the streets; it is part of the texture of the society the film describes.

The dialogue also provides a split-second insight into the character of Arezoo Rahimi, the film’s heroine. She has travelled from Tehran to report on the misdeeds of a serial killer operating in the holy metropolis of Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city. Arezoo has been working as a freelance journalist ever since she reported the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where she was previously employed for sexual harassment.

Of course, the rumours circulating about her in the industry claim something else altogether: “Something must have happened” between Arezoo and her boss whispers Sharifi, the local reporter whom Arezoo interviews as part of her investigations.


The male perspective that Arezoo stands in opposition to is at work not just in the hotel lobby, but all around her, including among the police. The police commissioner calls on her in her room in the evenings and harasses her until she narrowly manages to escape. Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who plays Arezoo, was herself the victim of a MeToo-style scandal in 2006, when an alleged sex tape involving her was circulated online.  

Instead of going to prison, Ebrahimi fled to Paris, where she still lives. In May of last year, she received the award for Best Actress at Cannes for her role in the film.

Saeed, the serial killer, finds his victims on the streets of Mashhad. The film begins with one of his murders. A young woman says goodbye to her child in one of the city’s slums, gets dolled up, pulls on a colourful headscarf, and positions herself on a street corner.

We see her with two of her clients, who humiliate and abuse her, and then she encounters a third, and climbs onto his motorbike. It is Saeed. He takes her to a half-finished building, throws her on the ground and strangles her with a cloth. The camera captures a close-up shot of the dead woman’s fear-stricken face.

It is images such as these that saw Holy Spider attract criticism for excessive depictions of violence at its premiere in Cannes. Indeed, the violence in the story is pervasive – in the relationships between the sex workers and their clients, in the way men look at Arezoo, and in the slums of Mashhad where drug addiction is rife.

The murderer himself is traumatised from years spent serving on the frontline of the Iran-Iraq war. During a picnic in the park, Saeed is accidentally struck on the head by a football and breaks down and cries like a little boy. From this perspective, it would be aesthetically inconsistent to ignore his crimes. The question is, what does this mean for a film that wants to be both a thriller and a portrait of society?


A perspective shaped by Western genre cinema

The film’s director, Ali Abbasi, left Iran to study in Europe in 2002 and has not returned. He took his exams at the film school in Copenhagen. He made his directorial debut with a horror film, and his second feature film Border was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and tells the story of a troll woman who discovers she can change sex.

You could say that Abbasi’s Holy Spider sees a perspective shaped by western genre cinema encounter a reality unsuited to a genre film. But that would only be the half of it, because Holy Spider takes great pains not to be a genre film. Abbasi is far more intent on reconstructing the reality of Iran from a distance of 20 years and, at the same time, making it comply with contemporary narrative styles, and it is this double effort that sees it ultimately overstretch itself.

There was a real-life serial killer at large in Mashhad in 2001. Saeed Hanaei – the so-called ‘Spider Killer’ because he often lured his victims to his home – strangled sixteen women before he was ultimately caught. In court, Hanaei claimed he had wanted to cleanse the city of immorality and depravity after his wife was mistaken for a sex worker.

Religious hardliners and commentators from conservative newspapers called for his release, but Hanaei was eventually sentenced to death and hanged in April 2002. That same year, a documentary film was released in which Hanaei was permitted to propagate his views in an interview.

The camera doesn’t know where to look

What didn’t exist back then, in the real-life case, was a female reporter intent on hunting Hanaei down. Abbasi invented the character of Arezoo so as not to have to make the murderer the film’s main protagonist – and to provide us with a sympathetic figure. This works well for a time, because Zar Amir Ebrahimi effortlessly dominates every shot she is in.


In the long run, however, it is doomed to go awry because Holy Spider is, after all, a film about the world of Saeed Hanaei: his compulsions, his desires, his hate. It is no coincidence that this failure becomes apparent right in the scene where the two characters meet.

A classic genre script would savour every scrap of the duel between our heroine and the villain. But that would contradict the seriousness of the film. On the other hand, Abbasi would not want the journalist’s search for the murderer to conclude without at least a bit of a bang.

And so, he attempts to salvage this with a half-hearted brawl that fails in its staging, both as a thriller and a semi-documentary. Even the camera doesn’t quite know where to look while it is happening. After this appearance, we hardly see anything more of Zar Amir Ebrahimi. The rest of the story belongs to the murderer.

Nevertheless, Holy Spider does offer its audience a big picture. It is a picture of the city at night, from above. Abbasi says he rediscovered the serial killer’s web in the patterns of light and shadow in the city of Mashhad. His film is an attempt to reflect the drama of a country in the contours of a story. The fact that he ultimately fails does not make the film any less interesting. And there is a pattern, too, to the protests on the streets of Iran: one which must be read.

Andreas Kilb

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/ 2023

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

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