The International Feature category offers an incredible array of films from a wide variety of artists, but one of the more unique aspects is the political one. Each country that participates and submits a film does so through their own selection process in line with their national laws. As such, there is often controversy when an entry from one part of the world is perceived to be casting aspersions on another part.
Such is the case with Holy Spider, the official submission from Denmark. Unlike previous films, which typically take place within their borders and use their language (even the sublime Flee from last year framed the Afghanistan exodus within the context of the subject’s current life in Denmark), this movie is an Iranian story by an Iranian filmmaker, but one that had to be filmed outside of the Islamic Republic due to the sensitivity of its subject matter. It was eventually condemned by religious and cultural authorities upon its screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and some not-so-subtle hints of legal reprisals have been levied against writer-director Ali Abbasi and anyone else involved with the project within Iranian territory. Given recent civil unrest that has gotten the world’s attention after the death of Mahsa Amini, those threats should not be taken lightly. Iran itself has been one of the larger and more celebrated voices in world cinema over the last few years, winning this category twice thanks to the work of Asghar Farhadi. However, the response to Holy Spider may undo a large amount of goodwill, especially because the backlash sort of proves the film’s point.
Based on real events from 2001 (which most Western audiences likely weren’t aware of due to 9/11, which is shown on local news reports early on), the movie revolves around the “Spider Killer,” a serial murderer who took the lives of 16 women over an 18-month period, all of whom were targeted because they were sex workers. First off, just let that mental image sink in: Iranian prostitutes. Given what most of us know about their culture, the idea that there even could be hookers in that country is something of a shocking premise, even though obviously the world’s oldest profession will exist anywhere and everywhere. The desire to make the film comes from Abbasi being aghast at the coverage of the case, as many locals considered the killer, played here by Mehdi Bajestani, to be something of a hero, a persona he leaned into, seeing himself as a righteous warrior for God, clearing the streets of “corrupted women.”
The fictitious element comes in the form of Rahimi, a journalist played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her performance. The idea – and a very well illustrated one at that – is to take the case from the perspective of a woman both investigating the crimes for the sake of her job while also experiencing the misogyny of the circumstances first hand. Very few people will say to her face that they feel the Spider’s actions are justified, but their default sexist behavior belies their true opinions. A hotel initially won’t give her a room she booked because she’s an unmarried woman traveling alone. A police chief in charge of the investigation tries to rape her and makes it clear that if she ever accused him of wrongdoing it would be her who was punished. There are almost no witnesses to the abductions, and no one is willing to stake out locations the killer is known to frequent. It becomes very clear very quickly that she’s on her own. She does have some help from a local reporter, but even then it’s implied that he’s just trying to play a “nice guy” angle to win some affections. Rahimi carries this story because literally no one else can or will.
Meanwhile, the fatwah of Saeed Hanaei continues almost unabated. I kind of love how there’s absolutely no mystery as to who the killer is. While his face is obscured in the opening scene, there’s never any doubt as to who’s committing these atrocities, nor any question as to his methodology or motivations. The very first sequence of the film shows an unsuspecting prostitute (Alice Rahimi) leaving her child behind to go to work, only to be eventually strangled by her own head scarf the moment she gets a bad vibe and tries to escape. It’s brutally staged, with her eyes practically popping out of their sockets as she struggles, begging for mercy because she has a child, all for it to fall on the deafest of ears as she breathes her last. It’s a stunning opening for us in the audience, but it’s all very rote for Saeed, as he patrols the streets on a motorbike, picks up his victim, takes her to his home, and then quickly dispatches her before rolling her up in a rug and dumping her body. He treats murder like an errand, ending lives in the same manner you or I might grab some McDonald’s on the way home from the office.
The reason Bajestani’s performance works so well is because of how he’s able to reconcile it with his day-to-day life. He has a steady job as a builder, and is getting close to retirement age. He has a loving wife and children, and it is so many degrees of creepy to see him dote on his young daughters knowing what he does at night. He’s so radically devout that in essence he sees homicide as part of his routine as a responsible parent and Muslim. And he’s able to flip his sadistic switch with uncomfortable ease.
This also feeds into the true suspense of the story. As the “Spider,” Saeed acts in a sanctimonious manner similar to John Doe in Se7en, to the point that when he’s finally caught, he never even attempts to claim innocence. However, he’s so convinced that he’s done right, and that he has the backing of his community, that he expects to be exonerated anyway. That’s the mystery for those who don’t know about this case. This man has gleefully admitted to 16 murders, and yet because of Iran’s cultural and religious institutions, there’s a system in place that could conceivably set him free, and has arguably turned a blind eye to this point. Even when you set aside the fact that Rahimi is an imagined character, and so she couldn’t have had any real role in his capture, there are still aspects of Iran’s justice system that could play to his advantage despite the horrid nature of his crimes.
We saw a similar thing last year with A Hero, which situated a good deal of its plot on the fact that the man who pressed charges and sent the main character to prison could simply forgive him and he’d be released. The same is true here. Forgiveness for the loss of human life can be a legal defense if the next of kin accepts some form of compensation, in this case money. That may sound nuts to people like me in America, but it’s a significant part of Iran’s system, and that’s where the tension lies. There’s a really strong degree of messed up chemistry between Saeed and Rahimi, as each one is essentially daring the other to say with any real certainty that they know what’s about to happen, which in turn fuels our anticipation as an audience. Will Saeed be convicted? Will he face prison or execution? Will his so-called supporters find a way to bail him out regardless? That’s where the very pillars of Iran’s society are being indicted, and likely why the government has threatened a very punitive response to those involved in the production, which was mostly filmed in Jordan.
In the light of recent events, it sort of boggles the mind that this would be Iran’s reaction. The whole point of this film is to show how justice is very much not blind or equal when it comes to the national religious doctrine versus a woman’s right to simply exist and live without fear. And yet, in issuing their threats and condemnations, again when the entire world is watching, the country is playing right into Abbasi’s hands, proving his thesis correct and making his movie all the more important and essential. The ease with which the characters twist themselves into justifying murder becomes an unintentional analog to how easily the Iranian government – and any other sufficiently repressive government around the globe – can twist itself to treat art as a criminal and existential threat. Just be grateful if you live in a place where you can be relatively assured of the proper outcome.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Had you heard about the Spider Killer before this film came out? Is there hope for political and cultural reform in Iran? Let me know!