‘Holy Spider’ Film Review: Disturbing Serial-Killer Drama Goes to Extremes to Show Violence Against Women

Cannes 2022: “Border” director Ali Abbasi reimagines the 2001 case of an Iranian religious fanatic who slaughtered 16 young women

Holy Spider
Festival de Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival’s iconic red carpet played host to a rare form of protest on Sunday, as a feminist collective unleashed smoke bombs and unrolled a list of murdered women just before the world premiere of Ali Abbasi’s serial-killer drama “Holy Spider.” And if the demonstration’s cause was only too just, its context was all too uncommon, since these protesters were seemingly there to support, not oppose, Abbasi’s violent and disturbing film. 

To follow up his Un Certain Regard-winning “Border,” the Iran-born Denmark-based director has burrowed into a chilling bit of true-crime from his native country, reimagining the 2001 case of a religious fanatic who slaughtered 16 young women and using that premise to explore systemic misogyny writ large. He does so by turning the murder thriller upside down, telling a story where the killer’s identify is never in doubt and his intentions are always crystal clear, and where the greatest source of tension comes from wondering whether anyone in power will lift a finger to stop him. 

The killer in this case is middle-aged construction worker Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani). A veteran of the nearly decade long Iraq-Iran war, this family man has settled into a life of dad-malaise. Though he tells himself and the press and anyone else who asks that he tracks and kills his city’s women of the night out of a sense of religious duty, he is really nothing but a washout who get his kicks exerting power over those who have none. 

When local authorities turn a blind eye, more or less sharing the killer’s socially ingrained contempt for women of misfortune (and really, women in general), it falls to “disgraced” journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi, an Iranian actress who had leave her native country after falling victim to revenge porn) to bring him to justice. Of course Rahimi is only disgraced because she had the temerity to challenge her sexually harassing former boss, but that’s enough to ruin a reputation in the Iran of 20 years ago and — as seen in the case of the film’s lead actress — the Iran of today.

Before we meet our two leads, we begin with a prologue that opens on the bruised and battered back of local working girl Somayeh (Alice Rahimi). After tucking her child in and leaving for a night’s work, she stops for the hit of crack that offers her relief from the pain that every john inflicts upon her body.  Before putting the young woman into the killer’s crosshairs, this prologue features nonchalant depictions of drug use, male and female nudity, and scenes of graphic violence that stand in marked contrast to the Farsi dialogue. This doesn’t exactly feel like the kind of material that would get an OK from Iran’s censorious authorities, and indeed, it is not.

Shot in Jordan, made with wholly European financing and featuring actors who themselves live in exile, “Holy Spider” is a film about Iranian culture made with a greater degree of artistic liberty than any local production could hope for. But sometimes that freedom carries Abbasi towards extremes, specifically in the many murder scenes. While one camp could argue that repeated scenes of man-on-woman brutality are necessary to emphasize the savage heart of this otherwise genteel family man, others might take the filmmaker to task for sensationalizing misogynistic violence, and both would have valid points. 

The fact is, with the locals more or less on the killer’s side, Saeed’s greatest danger is his own incompetence, which turns bloodthirsty sequences where everything can and does go wrong into platforms for pitch-black humor. Whether or not that humor feels appropriate is another question altogether. 

Of course, the filmmaker’s own perspective is never in doubt. “Holy Spider” is an outraged, indignant and somewhat obvious work. Though it lands on a bit of symbolism so savagely effective that we cannot dare spoil it when it reveals just how the killer gets rid of his bodies, it otherwise features little to surprise other than the extent of its own extremity.

That can, and very well will, cause a none-too-small amount of discomfort when the film sees release. Which makes it telling, in a way, that this afternoon’s cheerleading protest occurred before those activists had the chance to see the film.