Based on a true-life case, though with some of the characters embellished, Holy Spider tells the tale of a serial killer in the Iranian city of Mashhad in the early 2000s. Conventionally enough, we are offered some insights into the killer’s motivations and follow an odd-couple pair of investigative journalists. But as the prominence of the latter suggests, this is about the serial failures of the Iranian police to pursue the killer, which clearly stems from misogynistic contempt for his prostitute victims.
The film is also unconventional in pursuing the story beyond the killer’s eventual capture to dramatise the court case, the popular reception of his defence that he wasn’t insane but motivated by religious scruples, and the state’s manoeuvring over his sentencing. The role of women in Iranian society is clearly the real subject here, and therefore the attitudes and practices of the theocratic state.
While this international co-production (originating in Denmark) was never likely to receive a public screening in Iran, it was no surprise that the coincidence of the film’s release with the women-led protests following the death in custody of Masha Amini in September 2022 led to it being banned and the foreign reception, notably the decision of the Cannes Film Festival to award Ebrahimi the Best Actress prize, criticised as “an insulting and politically-motivated move”.
It is a deeply political film, but also an effective thriller and a study of the Iranian justice system.
“Holy Spider” succeeds as a work of art because of Abbasi’s great skills as a filmmaker… Moment to moment, scene after scene, both dramatically and stylistically, the film impresses with its careful control, attention to detail and unerring subtlety. And the performances Abbasi gets from Zar Amir Ebrahimi (she won Best Actress at Cannes) and Mehdi Bajestani are simply two of the most compelling and finely realized that I’ve seen this year.” Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com